Canada's federal election is officially on.

The campaign period will be the longest on record since politicians had to campaign from the back of trains, and the most expensive in history.

Right now, you can bet that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's backroom boys are furiously fashioning a bull's eye for Thomas Mulcair's back.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) chief is pulling ahead of the political pack, with the federal election less than three months away.

Harper's Conservatives just didn't seem to see him coming.

But the extraordinary length of the campaign - which they called - has given them an advantage. They have the biggest treasury. That means they can outgun the other party leaders with their attack ads.

What's more, they have been touting their record on the taxpayers' dime since first coming into power in 2006.

Since 2013, when he became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the Conservatives have been almost exclusively targeting Justin Trudeau - who has attracted most of the media attention and adulation.

After all, he has youthful good looks, great hair, charm, and of course, as the first-born son of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau - arguably Canada's most beloved prime minister of the late 20th century - the family brand name. The polls reflected his popularity.

But it's turned out to be thin gruel. Which is why Conservative ads have stressed Trudeau's lack of experience, and how he is "just not ready". 

Political warhorse 

Another reason lies in a Conservative determination to destroy the Liberals forever and Harper's visceral loathing of the Pierre Trudeau legacy.

Suddenly, Canadians who had been unable to imagine an NDP government in Ottawa could see the possibilities - and liked them.

 

One particularly horrific ad includes video clips of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executions, suggesting that, if elected, Trudeau would do nothing to stop the terror.

Meanwhile, Mulcair, a political warhorse who emerged from the Quebec Liberal provincial party cabinet to become leader of the official opposition federal NDP, has been free to gun for both Harper and Trudeau.

Unlike Trudeau, Mulcair has yet to shoot himself in the foot.

Oh sure, there have been a few stumbles, such as getting the corporate tax rate wrong in a radio interview and forgetting the details of his national childcare plan during a speech to Toronto bankers.

But, when the media and Twitter enemies blasted at these slips, all they delivered were glancing blows.

As for Trudeau, it was his support of Harper's reviled Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terrorism act that
legal experts maintain would fail the first, and inevitable, constitutional test, that proved to be politically toxic - if not fatal.

His mistake was to misread the political winds which, when C-51 was introduced in January, were blowing fear and loathing in the wake of two extremist attacks that had left two Canadian soldiers dead three months earlier.

Harper deemed these murders as "jihadist" although, evidence is, both perpetrators were emotionally disturbed Muslim converts acting as, in the words of criminologists, "lone wolves".

More whipping up of anti-Muslim sentiment by Harper and his cabinet ministers followed, including attempted bans of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies and denunciations of Islam as being an inherently "anti-woman culture".

Targeting Canada by name

As for ISIL, Harper raised the spectre of it reaching these shores by claiming in parliament that "it targets by name Canada and Canadians".

"The international jihadist movement [has] declared war ... on any country, like ourselves, that values freedom, openness and tolerance", Harper declared, as the world was reeling from last January's Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. 

No wonder that, by early spring, Canadian sentiment was tilting in favour of C-51, despite its violations of privacy, restrictions on freedom of speech and the lack of oversight over the nation's spy agencies.

Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party, has attracted most of the media attention, writes Zerbisias [Reuters]

But as more civil libertarians spoke out, as more constitutional scholars railed against it and when even prominent conservative pundits criticised it, Canadians began to recognise the dangers inherent in the bill.

They saw through the con, designed by the Harper government to divert attention from bread-and-butter issues such as the economy, healthcare and the environment. And so, they signed petitions and demonstrated.

The political winds shifted, and Trudeau was left twisting in them.

In May, C-51 was passed with Liberal support - despite Liberal senators rejecting what Liberal MPs accepted.

Meanwhile Mulcair and NDP legislators stood against it. And that's when Mulcair started gaining ground as Trudeau fell to the rear.

Mulcair also gained momentum when, in May in tarsands-rich Alberta, the provincial NDP toppled the Conservatives who had ruled the province for 43 years.

Bulletproof candidate

Suddenly, Canadians who had been unable to imagine an NDP government in Ottawa could see the possibilities - and liked them.

Since then, the NDP's stock has been rising. Over the past eight weeks, they have either tied or topped the polls in what is, admittedly, still a very tight race with the Conservatives.

Yet the Conservative campaign artillery has so far been slow to turn from Trudeau and aim at Mulcair.

In any case, so far he seems bulletproof. Attempts to portray him as pandering to the dying, if not altogether dead, Quebec separatist movement have gained no traction.

Sniping about the clarity of his position on pipelines has also missed the mark. And, in one brief overblown scandal, there were charges that he once tried to snag a $230,000 position as environmental adviser to Harper.

But that was discredited when journalists suspected it was the handiwork of a former Harper staffer now partnered with a Liberal candidate.

True, some fellow NDPers have flung mud at him in the past for not being labour-friendly or progressive enough. They also fault his stance on Israel, claiming that he does not firmly advocate for Palestinian rights.

But there's not much dirt that's been dug up on him. Still, you can be sure the Conservatives and Liberals are getting out their shovels.

As for Mulcair, he is leaving them in the dust.

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera