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Prestige Abroad Hurts Canada's Liberal Party Leader

Canada's Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, a candidate for prime minister, greets supporters at a campaign kickoff rally in Ottawa on March 26.
Canada's Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, a candidate for prime minister, greets supporters at a campaign kickoff rally in Ottawa on March 26.

Michael Ignatieff has an international reputation as an author, a Harvard scholar and the man whose arguments helped persuade Western leaders to send military forces to protect Albanians in Kosovo.

Now, the academic is leading Canada's opposition Liberal Party and running for prime minister. But his prestige abroad is turning out to be more of a hindrance than a help as he campaigns for Canada's top political job.

At a campaign rally in Hamilton, Ontario, the center of Canada's steel industry, the candidate's mission is to convince the working-class crowd of 3,000 that he's not the privileged snob some think he is. He's all smiles as he shakes hands, kisses a baby and throws out a few compliments.

Speaking without notes, in both English and French, he hammers home his message.

"We need to put up against the politics of fear the politics of hope," he says. " La politique de l'espoir. Isn't that a beautiful word? It is the core of what Liberal politics is about. And you know what hope looks like? It looks like the Liberal platform."

Ignatieff's platform emphasizes middle-class concerns — things like health care and education. Larry Shuh says that after hearing Ignatieff, he might just vote for him.

"I saw, in spite of his intelligence, his track record, everything that he's done; I saw a modest man standing up there, and I believed what he actually said," Shuh says.

But Ignatieff is having trouble bringing Canadians around to Shuh's point of view. Political pundits agree he's run a pretty much flawless election campaign. But he still ranks third in opinion polls, far behind the current Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Public policy consultant John Duffy says Ignatieff turned a lot of voters off when he returned from his job as a human rights professor at Harvard to enter Canadian politics. He'd spent more than 30 years working in England and the United States. Duffy says Ignatieff was the type of intellectual you'd expect in Back Bay Boston or New York's Upper West Side, where, he says, it's all about wit, extra languages and literary anecdotes.

"None of those things are valued in national Canadian politics. In fact, they'll cost you," Duffy says.

Ignatieff loosened up and learned to speak everyday English during a bus tour of small-town Canada last summer. But he's still fighting the damage from a series of Conservative Party attack ads that questioned his patriotism on prime time TV during the winter.

"While away, he called America his country. He even professed his love for America," one ad claims. "Ignatieff. He didn't come back for you."

When he's asked about the ads during one of his regular campaign press briefings, Ignatieff takes pains to point out he's not much different from a lot of Canadians.

"I was born in this country of two Canadian parents, one of them a refugee and an immigrant," he said. "I was educated in Canada, completed my undergraduate education here, went overseas, yeah, proud to have done so. And all the time I was overseas, I maintained a steady connection with Canada, and I feel a sense of pride at having lived a Canadian life."

Ignatieff will be repeating that message until election day on May 2. But, so far, he hasn't been able to boost his approval ratings, no matter what he does. Although the Liberal Party has run Canada for most of the last century, even Liberal insiders wonder if Ignatieff will be able to convince people he's Canadian enough to be their prime minister.

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