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What I've Learned From Canada's Election Campaign

A few things I've learned covering Canada's current national election campaign for MarketWatch.com this past month from my vantage point on the Canadian border, where I get Canadian radio and TV:

1. Canadian politics, while occasionally tough, is far more civil than the American variety: This is partly "constitutional" -- i.e., Canadians aren't as fiercely competitive, as dog-eat-dog-oriented as Americans. They're more into the liberal, "common-good" thing. (And yes, they're more polite; and that's not a bad thing to be). This shows up in their campaigns, and the politics aren't as nasty. (In fact, sometimes it's more a case of the bland leading the bland.) But this current campaign, which concludes with federal elections May 2, is more sharp-elbowed than any I can remember. Which leads to...

2. Attack ads seem to work, even in less-contentious Canada: For months, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party has been running attack ads on TV -- I'd call them "mild insult" ads -- against Harper's loyal opposition, Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff. They claim the only reason "Iggy" returned to Canada (from a distinguished career at Harvard and the BBC) was for personal political gain. "The ads have worked," said one commenter on the CBC political website this week. Using the most iconic Canadian figures imaginable -- hockey stars -- he wrote, "If the first we'd ever heard of Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby was in attack ads against them, they'd never have become national heroes." The anti-Ignatieff TV ads are cited by many Canadian pundits as the reason Harper is not only ahead in the polls, but also, one reason Ignatieff has slipped behind socialist-leaning NDP leader Jack Layton into third place nationally.

3. "Charismatic" is not a word often associated with Canadian pols: But I actually saw it in print last week, describing the genial Layton, in a major media outlet, the Toronto Globe and Mail. Maybe that's why lefty Layton, who's not exactly a spellbinder (he looks more like a friendly Safeway manager) has pulled ahead of the professorial-looking Ignatieff in many polls. Layton could become the official Opposition Leader after the May 2 elections. As for the charismatically challenged Prime Minister, when Stephen Harper walks into a room, it's like someone just left.

4. It's not a good idea for a politician to show up at a hockey game: Especially a hockey game in Canada. Ignatieff, trying to soften his elitist image, showed up at a minor-league hockey game in the working-class Toronto suburb of Mississauga over the weekend. When he was introduced and the federal Liberal leader's image was shown on the big screen, Ignatieff was roundly booed. Just drop the puck!

5. Regional parties don't work: Remember the Dixiecrats in the U.S. South? Canada's version is the Bloc Quebecois, Canada's fourth national party, one paradoxically opposed to the province of Quebec being a part of Canada at all. (Don't even ask.) The separatist Bloc, in the latest polls, has even slipped behind the also-leftist NDP in its home base of Quebec. (Le Bloc, not surprisingly, has no federal MP's outside of Quebec). The Globe and Mail called Layton's lead in la belle province "Quebec's Jackomania." I watched both nationally televised debates, in French and English, and the likeable Layton won both..

6. It's the economy, stupid: On the campaign trail, the lackluster Harper constantly reminds audiences that Canada's economy has done well -- certainly better than the American one -- during the current economic crisis. This has seemed to resonate with Canadians, polls and the Canadian punditocracy suggest, and because of it, Harper may well end up (finally) with a majority in Parliament after Tuesday's federal elections. Canadians are tired of federal elections -- four in seven years -- even though they're a small fraction of the length of American elections. .

7. No cable-news maw to feed: Unquestionably, one reason Canada's elections are not as caustic as America's is because Canadian TV doesn't have three cable networks (CNN, Fox, MSNBC) with partisan pundits grinding away all day long. The two established Canadian cable news channels are just that - news channels, with very little punditry and no American-style acrimony. That could change, however: A new, Fox News-ish cable network, Sun TV, signed on last week, offering what the Globe and Mail calls "a roller coaster of rage."

The new entry arrives too late to substantially influence the current federal election, but give it time. At some point, wedge subjects like death panels and Kenyan birth certificates could rear their ugly heads on Canadian cable. And that, sadly, will probably mean the end of Canada's more dignified campaigns.

8. Canadian newspaper headline writers are asleep at the switch: Prime Minister Harper showed up last week at the end of a quiet street in sleepy Victoria, B.C. (aka "God's Waiting Room North"). The street was referred politely and elegantly in most Canadian news reports as a "cul-de-sac." This was the perfect set-up for a joke, but I couldn't find a single headline in a major Canadian daily that read: "Harper Running a Dead-End Campaign."

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