Every day counts in a 38 day campaign.

Every national campaign begins with the same objective: dominate and define the launch.   The stakes are high: campaign strategists know that the launch and immediate follow-up capture the attention of the voter and the media.  Looking at past elections, voter interest wanes after launch until the debates take place.

So, it is no wonder that all four parties set out to own the day on the first day of the campaign: March 26th.

There are markedly different strategies at play in each of the leader’s campaign playbooks.

The Conservative Party of Canada

The Conservative’s playbook is clear – define the electorate’s choice.   Stephen Harper wasted no time in appealing for a majority government, a different approach from the last three federal campaigns when Conservatives were accused of harbouring a hidden agenda and were hesitant to use the “m-word”.

The Prime Minister turned the tables on the opposition, accusing them of a hidden agenda by alleging their intent to forge a coalition government after the election. The strategy allowed the Conservatives to go on the offensive and change the channel on the contempt charges.   Expect to see the campaign continue to set up two polarized voter choices: Conservative support (possibly a majority government) versus Liberal support (the potential for a coalition between opposition parties).

Over the course of the campaign the Conservative tour will focus on Newfoundland and Labrador, and the suburbs of Ontario and British Columbia, where Conservatives have identified swing riding support.  They will focus less on Atlantic and western Canada while working to maintain seats in Quebec.

 The Liberal Party of Canada

Running well behind in most polls, the Liberals’ playbook is different. They will build on current events to   demonstrate distrust in the current government.  However, the Liberals face two challenges: increasing the popularity of their leader, which is running behind the popularity of the Liberal party, and demonstrating that they have the program and team to be a legitimate alternative to the governing Conservatives.

At the same time, they are fending off Harper’s aggressive assertion that they are secretly plotting to form a coalition government as the path to govern.  Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff will have to work hard to keep the campaign focused on what the Liberals believe to be Harper’s soft spot, a command and control personality that rides roughshod over democratic norms and traditions.  The Liberal team, particularly female candidates, will be featured at every campaign stop.  Look for the Liberal leader’s tour to focus on urban Ontario, Atlantic Canada and Quebec while spending limited time in western Canada.

The New Democratic Party of Canada

The NDP leader’s playbook is almost entirely personal at this early stage.

Jack Layton, known as a vigorous campaigner, is working to dispel ‘health concerns’.  By focussing on what the NDP perceive as the government’s exposed flank – HST concerns in BC, pension and economic equality issues – Layton will contribute to the Liberal discourse around distrust.  With soft NDP support in many incumbent ridings, Layton will have to campaign hard to demonstrate that a vote for the NDP will allow fulfilment of the policy agenda.  The NDP ‘open  mind’’ to a coalition will create a problem for the Liberals.  The NDP tour will focus on the target ridings in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.

Bloc Quebecois

The Bloc leader has the advantage of focus and one main target in the Quebec campaign.   Gilles Duceppe’s statements will play a more significant role in this campaign for two reasons – the prospect of a coalition, and the necessity of the government to maintain their current level of support in Quebec to reach their coveted majority.

Elizabeth Roscoe is Senior Vice President, Public Affairs at Hill & Knowlton Ottawa.

Hill & Knowlton will provide regular updates and analyses of the election and the issues raised throughout the campaign. You can also follow us on Twitter at @HKCan_PA.