Election year brings in a new Mulcair and Trudeau

It’s an election year and that means last year’s versions of the two men who are bent on unseating Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are gone. The 2015 versions of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are different in both style and message. Some of the changes are subtle — a little tweaking there, a little buffing there — but make no mistake, both men are marketing themselves differently to voters in the early part of this year.

It’s an election year and that means last year’s versions of the two men who are bent on unseating Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are gone.

The 2015 versions of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are different in both style and message.

Some of the changes are subtle — a little tweaking there, a little buffing there — but make no mistake, both men are marketing themselves differently to voters in the early part of this year.

Trudeau is striving to look more like a prime minister-in-waiting, showing more discipline in his message and eliminating a penchant for ill-conceived comments that made him an attractive target for political opponents.

Mulcair has to tell voters who he is. He remains a blank slate to too many voters.

Trudeau is still making himself accessible to the media, but he is limiting questions in Ottawa for the first time, his answers are tighter and he is desperately trying to stay on message.

Gone is the propensity for filling dead air he demonstrated early in his tenure as leader.

He now prefers to meet reporters on Wednesdays after caucus in a media studio, a backdrop that lends him an air of gravitas, gives him a lectern and allows him to use flags for a television backdrop.

It gives him more control than the often chaotic questioning he deals with outside the caucus room.

But Trudeau on a leash is not the same freewheeling politician who spent so much time atop the polls and it is an open question as to whether voters will warm to the toned-down Trudeau, who sounds more like a message track politician with each passing day.

It eliminates the shoot-from-the-lip lines that have caused him so much trouble, but Liberal strategists once liked to describe him as a home run hitter, a guy who could swat the ball out of the park but would strike out from time to time.

To continue the baseball analogy in 2015, Trudeau now has better plate discipline, and he doesn’t swing at questions out of his strike zone.

But the jury’s out. He has had some difficulty — including a tough interview on CBC’s As It Happens in which host Carol Off suggested Canadians didn’t know what he stood for and Trudeau said people should read his book.

A couple of days later in an interview with Robert Fife on CTV’s Question Period, Trudeau just seemed flat.

The selling of Mulcair has undergone a more radical overhaul. There is a sense among many New Democrats that an opportunity to market the leader as a new brand in Canadian politics was squandered when he became leader in 2012.

He was swamped when Trudeau won the Liberal leadership and became the flavour of the month.

Mulcair has brought some veterans from the Jack Layton days back into his inner circle and the change is noticeable.

The party did extensive polling at the end of 2014 seeking voter perceptions of all three federal leaders.

It found the Opposition leader did not suffer from perceived grumpiness or anger — party insiders say that is merely a construct of the Ottawa bubble — but from a lack of recognition from Canadian voters.

So Mulcair now sprinkles biographical information in his speeches, telling voters he is the second oldest of a family of 10, had a middle-class upbringing, that he and his family had to work hard for everything they got, that he learned to live within his means early in life.

When he talks about national security, he reminds voters that one of his sons is a police officer.

He is spending more time on the road and more time with wife Catherine Pinhas at his side because New Democrats think the presence of his spouse “warms up” the leader and makes him a more relaxed, approachable politician.

He speaks more often of his years in politics and his time in cabinet in Quebec.

NDP polling found Trudeau’s inexperience is his biggest liability, so Mulcair will now tell you that prime minister is “not an entry level position.’’

There is also more Mulcair on social media, Mulcair smiling at a hockey game, Mulcair smiling at the Canadian Screen Awards, Mulcair smiling with children.

We’re often told in politics that it is folly to try to make a candidate something that he or she is not.

But this is all about marketing and likability, warmth and credibility can move large voting chunks in what will likely be a very close election this year.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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