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Michael Ignatieff: Canadian candidate struggles to prove his Canadianness

Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party candidate in Canada's May 2 election, lags far behind in the polls. His main problem: He spent too much time south of the border.

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“He was very much the kind of person you’d expect in a salon in Back Bay Boston or on the Upper West Side of New York or in Cambridge or in Islington in London where those are the values,” says Mr. Duffy. “It’s about intelligence, quick-wittedness, a certain savoir faire, a command of a few extra languages, a good number of historical references and literary anecdotes. None of those things are valued in national Canadian politics. In fact, they cost you.”

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With national elections looming, Ignatieff loosened up and learned to relate to ordinary folks during a cross-Canada bus tour of small-town barbecues and church basements last summer. At the end of the tour, it seemed that by adopting the language of the street and letting people poke and prod to see what he was made of, the former Harvard lecturer had finally found his stride in Canadian politics.

“It’s all about confidence and I think for Mr. Ignatieff, becoming leader as he did, this was a huge challenge,” says Dan Brock, one of the party insiders who recruited Ignatieff. “But he’s developed the confidence to get rid of the scripting and to be himself.”

Some of that transformation is paying off. Marsha Deschamps, a speech language pathologist from Hamilton, said she at first had doubts about Ignatieff but that he won her over with his focus on strengthening the Canadian health care system, one of the “pillars” of Canadian identity.

“I really feel bad for what Canada has done to him,” she said. “I think of him as a well educated and thoughtful man with a strong vision of where he wants to take us.”

Conservatives' attack

But Ignatieff is still burdened with a widespread perception that he is an outsider with dubious motives for coming home, an idea firmly planted in the Canadian psyche by a series of Conservative Party-sponsored attack ads that saturated prime time Canadian television over the winter. The ads say Ignatieff has publicly stated his love for the United States and conclude “Ignatieff, he didn’t come back for you,” or “Michael Ignatieff. Just visiting.”

The Liberals were short of money to place their own ads. On the campaign trail, Ignatieff has fought back by pointing out that Harper’s weak coalition government was forced into an election because of a finding it had misled parliament about the cost of building more jails and buying F-35 fighter jets from the US.

"The other thing that Mr. Harper does is the appeal to fear. ‘If I don’t get a big fat majority, that terrible, frightening, terrifying figure Michael Ignatieff might just become prime minister of Canada,' that’s what he’s telling Canadians,” he told the crowd in Hamilton. “I have many failings … but I don’t think I’m scary. I don’t think Canadians need to be scared of me, they don’t need to be scared of democracy and above all they don’t need to be scared of change.”

The pitch goes over well with audience members like Larry Shuh, a budget manager at a nearby university. “I saw, in spite of his intelligence, his track record, everything he’s done, I saw a modest man standing up there and I believed what he actually said,” says Mr. Shuh.

But even he can see Ignatieff has little hope of leading the next national government when Canadians vote May 2. “I don’t mean to say this negatively, but I think it’s going to take more than one election for him to win over Canada,” he says. “If he doesn’t make it this time I hope that he’s allowed the time to really develop into that role and let people know what he is.’

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