Ignatieffs new chief of staff aims to turnaround image

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OTTAWA - Michael Ignatieff isn't a Tim Horton's kind of guy - and that suits his new chief of staff just fine.

Peter Donolo has spent his first week on the job reminding Liberals that party icon Pierre Trudeau wasn't exactly a donut shop everyman either and that didn't stop Canadians from electing him four times as prime minister.
The trouble for the current Liberal leader is that the Tories have successfully turned his resume as an internationally acclaimed intellectual and former Harvard professor into a liability. To hear them tell it, Ignatieff is an elitist academic who's "in it for himself" and "just visiting" Canada after working more than 30 years abroad.
Donolo's goal is to turn that negative back into a positive.
The former communications whiz during Jean Chretien's rein as Liberal leader isn't talking publicly. Rather, Donolo is adhering to the rule laid down by one of his mentors - the late Jean Pelletier, Chretien's former chief of staff - who used to say a good chef never cooks in the living room.
Indeed, he's pointedly reminded other staffers in Ignatieff's office that they're "the behind-the-cameras talent" and should leave the spotlight to the leader and his MPs.
But according to party insiders with whom he's spoken, Donolo's assessment of the party's sagging fortunes is as follows:
Ignatieff and his inner circle have allowed themselves to be spooked by the Tory attack ads. Consequently, they've "hidden his light under a bushel," playing down Ignatieff's lofty academic and intellectual credentials.
Donolo believes his task is "not so much to package (Ignatieff) as to unpackage him," allow him to be himself and to build on his strength as a thoughtful, insightful deep thinker - the very qualities that initially excited Liberals and evoked comparisons to Trudeau.
His aim is to position Ignatieff as a leader who's better able to grapple with the weighty issues and thorny challenges ahead, as opposed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is so devoted to the appearance of the common man that he chose to attend the opening of a new Tim Horton's shop rather than a speech to the United Nations general assembly on the environment.
Donolo has his work cut out for him.
During his first week on the job, opinion polls suggested the Liberals have slid to their lowest support levels yet - as much as 15 points behind the Tories and below even the 26 per cent of the vote they captured in the last election under the unlamented leadership of Stephane Dion.
Ignatieff's performance rating has plummeted as well, ever since he rashly declared in early September that the Liberals would seek the earliest opportunity to defeat the government - an assertion he's since had to disavow as he's stumbled from crisis to crisis throughout the fall.
It's so bad that Dion's outspoken wife, Janine Krieber, penned a scathing entry on her Facebook page last week, asserting that Ignatieff is an intellectual dilettante who's written "insanities" about the use of torture and who is incapable of reviving a party she deems to be in its death throes. She hinted broadly she's contemplating shifting allegiance to another party.
Little wonder then Donolo has squelched all election speculation, predicting to Liberals there'll be no national vote for at least seven months and possibly more than a year.
He's told the election-readiness team to stand down, sending war room head Warren Kinsella, who had been coming to Ottawa several days a week helping to plot question period attack strategy, back to Toronto for the time being. Nine junior staff members in the leader's office, most hired in anticipation of an election, have been let go.
Shutting down the campaign team was both logical and a financial necessity. Insiders say donations to the party, after getting off to a good start in the first half of the year, have tailed off dramatically this fall.
Donolo has been warning Liberals not to expect a quick turnaround, to keep in mind that they're "playing the long game" and it will take some months to pay off.
Among other things, the long game is expected to include having Ignatieff spend more time on the road (as he did last week, although those particular cross-country appearances were planned before Donolo came on board), delivering a more targeted message and giving Canadians a clearer picture of what he stands for.
While no one's talking about unveiling a platform so far in advance of a possible election, Donolo is said to want Ignatieff to focus more tightly on the key issues that matter most to Canadians, presumably of the bread-and-butter variety.
Liberal attacks in question period are also expected to become more aggressive and focused, rather than the scatter-shot approach they've been taking. There was a glimpse of that new approach last week, as Liberals zeroed in almost exclusively on the alleged torture of Afghan detainees.
However, their focus also managed to underscore the magnitude of the challenge facing Donolo and his new team.
Ignatieff's pre-planned absence from the Commons during the detainee debate sparked speculation that the leader wasn't comfortable with the issue, given past writings which some critics allege amount to justifying the use of torture on terrorist suspects. Ignatieff has always vehemently denied endorsing torture of any kind but Krieber's broadside against his written "insanities" only added fuel to the fire.
Still, the week offered another glimpse of Donolo's strategy when it comes to attacks on Ignatieff or the party. Liberals went on a ferocious, all-out counter-attack against a Tory leaflet, mailed to ridings with large Jewish populations, that suggested a link between Liberals and anti-Semitism.
Until now, Liberals have refused to fight fire with fire, letting vicious Tory attack ads against Ignatieff go largely unanswered. No more.
"We're going to fight back hard and call a spade a bloody shovel," is the way one insider describes Donolo's desired approach.
Whether Donolo - or anyone - can pull the Liberal party out of its funk remains to be seen. But his arrival on the scene, along with a bevy of old pros who've replaced Ignatieff's formerly inexperienced inner circle, has already paid off in at least one respect.
"I think the early impact is on the caucus's morale and self-confidence," says Ralph Goodale, the Liberal House leader.

Organizations: Tim Horton's, Tory, Harvard United Nations Liberal House

Geographic location: OTTAWA, Canada, Toronto

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