Conservative Victor Campaigned Conservatively

Times Staff Writer

Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper is not a charismatic politician. Instead, he tends to be aloof and cerebral, with an explosive temper and a reluctance for the baby kissing and back-slapping that are part of a typical campaign. But the former oil executive and economist has a sharp mind for policy and an instinct for strategy that helped win the wary support of Canadians in a carefully controlled campaign.

In the last election, just over two years ago, the majority of voters hungry for an alternative to the long-ruling Liberal Party rejected his brand of change as too extreme. In a country that largely defines itself by its difference from the United States and cherishes its progressive social programs, Harper represented a swing to the right that would bring it much closer to the Bush administration and away from the assumption that government will provide healthcare, child care and protection for the rights of minorities.

But Harper learned a lesson from the Conservatives' defeat and this time mounted a campaign based on change while Liberals warned against his prescriptions. Harper downplayed some of the positions that alarmed progressive voters, hinting that he would not challenge abortion rights and same-sex marriage or radically change healthcare. At the same time, he offered tax cuts, mandatory prison sentences and other reforms that appealed to middle-class voters.

"I have evolved," Harper, 46, told reporters last week.

He also has started to show his human side -- he is writing a history of hockey and takes his two children to school every day -- and has tried his hand at humor.

On Sunday, for instance, he said that it is to Canadians' credit that they didn't fall for the Liberals' arguments during the campaign. "Canadians can disagree, but it takes a lot to get Canadians to intensely hate something or hate somebody. And it usually involves hockey."

Political analysts say Harper has indeed evolved, but he hasn't transformed and still harbors an ardent conservative agenda. Besides tax cuts and prison terms, Harper has said he would withdraw the country from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change -- echoing Washington's stance -- and rethink its withdrawal from the U.S. strategic missile defense program.

But Harper has recognized the value of a gradual conservative revolution, easing his agenda through in small steps. Mindful that being prime minister of a minority government will force him to compromise with other parties determined to keep him in line, he says he is open to a good argument. The Canadian Supreme Court and the country's appointed Senate also will keep the Conservative Party agenda in check.

"I'm not sure he will be able to make drastic changes with a minority government," said Tim Woolstencroft, managing director of the polling firm Strategic Counsel. "If he wants to establish the Conservative Party as an enduring, winning coalition, he can't remove the social safety net."

But the man who engineered the 2003 merger of two conservative parties into one that denied the Liberals a majority in government also has an eye on the future, trying to ensure that the Conservatives won't be so easy to push to the sidelines again. Harper has sketched out a plan to quietly dismantle the Liberal machine and its long-standing entitlements, paving the way, he hopes, for a real two-party system in a country that has been dominated by the Liberals since World War II.

Although Harper grew up in Ontario, he went to college and worked for years in Alberta, where he came to resent the way the Ottawa-based government ignored the western provinces. He has pledged to give more autonomy and funding to the provinces, which must pay for healthcare and education themselves.

"The West just wants a bigger part in running the country and a more important place in the country, to know that it's not just an appendage of the country," Harper said last week. "If I can't do it, who's going to do it?"

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