Harper moves to put campaign back on track

The Conservative campaign caravan sought to steer itself back on course with a long-term tax pledge, a pile-on against a Liberal foe and, finally, an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

OTTAWA — The Conservative campaign caravan sought to steer itself back on course with a long-term tax pledge, a pile-on against a Liberal foe and, finally, an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

That combination of tax policy and raw politics helped the Tories regain some control Thursday after several days of having their campaign message repeatedly sidelined.

They promised to eventually double — to $10,000 — the maximum annual contribution to Tax Free Savings Accounts after the deficit is eliminated in several years. TFSAs allow people to save money, including investment dividends, without being taxed; the Tories estimate 4.7 million Canadians have one.

The time horizon on that promise is so distant, however, that the Liberals likened it to promising beer out of rain water.

The policy has other possible drawbacks; it will be of little use to those Canadians unable to save more than $5,000 per year, while having a permanent multibillion-dollar impact on federal finances.

The Conservatives also launched an online blitz, through Twitter, to draw attention to a Liberal candidate’s remark in a radio interview that some types of sexual assault — like inappropriate touching — don’t merit jail time.

That offensive against a former judge running for the Liberals in Alberta came after a week in which the Tories were forced to play defence, with several of their own members undermined by mischief-making from opposition researchers.

Also Thursday, the prime minister finally said sorry.

After three days of controversy, Harper apologized for several recent incidents in which people linked to rival parties were kicked out of Tory campaign events.

“If anybody is kept out of any of our events that’s there to hear our message, then we obviously apologize to them,” Harper said during a stop in Vaughan, Ont. “Our interest is in having as many people out to hear our message as we can.”

The apology came after the RCMP admitted that its officers had helped the Tories eject people — a role the Mounties have, over the years, occasionally been forced to play at Harper events. The police force reminded its officers Wednesday that they should only be guarding leaders, not serving political parties.

Michael Ignatieff seized on yet another chance to compare Harper’s campaign style to his own. Ignatieff said he routinely visits with members of the public, occasionally finding himself on the receiving end of insults or indifference.

“What is this? Canadian democracy,” he said in Laval, Que. “I’ve tried to run a campaign where we don’t do identity checks, we don’t do Facebook checks. We say, ‘Come on in!’ ”

Ignatieff started his day at a seniors’ residence, where he outlined promises to improve the pension system.

But afterward, he was faced with a number of uncomfortable questions, such as how he plans to pay for his campaign promises.

Ignatieff has denounced the government for wasting resources on fighter jets and expanded prisons when the priorities of Canadians lie elsewhere. However, he hasn’t offered much detail on the Liberals’ alternatives.

The Conservatives have been pushing with little success for an explanation of which crime legislation Ignatieff might strip down in order to save money on penitentiaries.

The NDP also talked crime.

Leader Jack Layton promised to put an additional 2,500 police officers on streets across the country and double funding for programs that try to keep children from joining gangs. The NDP says it would spend $250 million a year on a suite of crime-prevention programs and additional police.

On the legislative side, Layton said the NDP would make gang recruitment illegal. It would also make car-jacking and home invasions separate offences under the Criminal Code. He made the announcement in Surrey, B.C., where violence among young people has skyrocketed.

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