Canadian conservative stars cast shadow over Trudeau rival's hopes

By David Ljunggren
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FILE PHOTO: Supporters react to polling results at the UCP election night headquarters in Calgary

FILE PHOTO: Supporters react to polling results at the United Conservative Party (UCP) provincial election night headquarters in Calgary, Alberta, Canada April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Right-leaning Canadian politicians have won important elections over the last year, but it may do Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau more good in October's national vote than his little-known Conservative Party challenger.

Andrew Scheer, 39, has struggled to become a household name since taking over as leader of the federal Conservatives in 2017, a problem not shared by the telegenic Trudeau, whose father led the country for more than 15 years.

Last week, Alberta's United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney, a former federal minister, won a landslide victory in the energy-rich province.

Kenney's election follows that of Ontario populist firebrand Doug Ford, who ended 15 years of Liberal rule in the country's most populous province in 2018.

While those victories signal that conservative momentum is building, the experienced and better-known Kenney and Ford could steal Scheer's thunder as he tries to make himself more widely known ahead of the Oct. 21 election.

"Andrew Scheer is not the conservative leader. Andrew Scheer may be leader of the federal Conservative Party of Canada, (but) the conservative leaders are Jason Kenney and Doug Ford," said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Though Scheer has experience in Ottawa, his role as speaker of the House of Commons from 2011 to 2015 was a back-room job which required him to be impartial and did not allow him to build up a public image. Kenney, on the other hand, was a high-profile Cabinet minister from 2008 to 2015.

Ford is the Canadian politician most-often compared to U.S. President Donald Trump, and he has not shied away from pushing controversial policies - like cutting spending on healthcare and education - that likely would not help Scheer in a national fight.

Damaged by a scandal over allegations of interference in a corporate corruption case, Trudeau, 47, is trailing Scheer in the polls and risks becoming the first prime minister since the 1930s to lose power after a single majority mandate.

Liberal insiders say Trudeau might prefer to turn the campaign into a fight against Ford and Kenney, which would shift attention away from Scheer while linking the Conservatives to right-wing policies associated with Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Canada.

"Conservative politicians like Doug Ford don't seem to believe in investing for the future ... sadly, Andrew Scheer takes his cues from the Ontario premier on a whole host of fronts," Trudeau said at a Liberal rally last Friday.

"Trudeau can run against Trumpism with (Kenney and Ford) as the embodiment of Trumpism in Canada, and he can be the champion of Canadian values," said Peter Donolo, who was a spokesman for former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

One well-placed Conservative said another challenge was that Scheer's affable personality and ability to connect with people in a room did not always translate onto the big screen. Instead, he can sometimes come across as flustered.

Scheer's chief spokesman Brock Harrison dismissed such concerns, saying he was happy with efforts to cut the recognition gap with Trudeau.

"The leader of the opposition is never going to be a household name until they become the prime minister of Canada," Harrison said in a phone interview.

"We feel like we've done everything we need to do, or that we should be doing, to increase his profile."

While Kenney and Ford would not formally be involved in campaign planning, they were likely to make appearances as part of a Conservative push against Trudeau's plan to fight climate change by imposing a carbon tax, Harrison added.

Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, said that while Kenney's election last week showed conservative support was getting stronger, Scheer still does not grab the public imagination.

"There isn't a huge groundswell of personal following for him," Malloy said.

(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Editing by Steve Scherer and Paul Simao)