Stephen Harper shrugged off questions about the expulsion of a 19-year-old political science student from one of his rallies for a Facebook picture of Michael Ignatieff - one of several incidents fuelling criticism the Conservative Leader is campaigning in an overprotective bubble.
He refused to acknowledge any problem with pre-screening at rallies during a election tour stop in suburbs north of Toronto Wednesday. Instead the Conservative Leader smiled and thanked a reporter for their "ongoing concern for our attendance at our rallies."
With this, Mr. Harper tried to frame the controversy as an issue of capacity not pre-clearance.
"I can't comment on specific cases. There are literally thousands of people coming out to these events," the Tory Leader said.
"I think it's better when you are turning people away than when you can't get people to come, but I don't want to comment on individual cases."
Mr. Harper's tightly controlled campaign to win a majority government is a classic front-runner strategy: Protect the leader and you protect the lead.
But the lengths to which the Conservative election machine is going to cocoon Mr. Harper from risk are pushing the Tory tactics into the spotlight.
A handful of episodes in which party operatives have asked people to leave rallies - based on checks of Facebook pages and bumper stickers - have sparked opposition charges that Mr. Harper supporters are going overboard in their desire to insulate their leader from criticism.
Sensing the issue has traction, the Liberals churned out a cheeky video spot poking fun at the Tory tactic. It's titled " Hey Stephen Harper, stop creeping me on Facebook."
The campaign incident that drew the most attention occurred at a Harper rally in London, Ont. on April 3. Awish Aslam and her friend were expelled from the event 30 minutes after arriving because, an official told her, "We know you guys have ties to the Liberal Party through Facebook and you're not welcome here."
Ms. Aslam said she is not a Liberal Party member, but she has a Facebook photo of her and Michael Ignatieff taken when she attended a Grit rally in London a week earlier. She said as a political science student at the University of Western Ontario she's studying all the parties and had registered to attend the Harper rally with the help of her friend's father, who's a card-carrying Conservative Party member.
National campaign spokesman Dimitri Soudas said Wednesday he's apologized to Ms. Aslam in a personal message via Facebook.
The Tories play down the incidents as aberrations, and argue that Canadian voters care little about such "process" stories.
National Harper campaign spokespeople have refused to discuss precisely how attendees at Harper rallies are screened. They say they're not aware of people's background being screened.
Mr. Harper tried to turn the controversy into a reflection of how popular his campaign rally stops have proven. He suggested the Tories have beaten the other parties in terms of attendance at events. "The reason we're getting people to come out - and the other guys are having their problems - is because people didn't want this election."
The Conservative government was defeated March 25 when opposition parties passed a no-confidence motion declaring the Tories in contempt of Parliament for stonewalling on the costs of their tough-on-crime agenda and the full bill for new fighter jets.
"We've had thousands of people, far more people come out to hear us than the other guys have," Mr. Harper said. "When the other guys are complaining we're turning people away - and they can't get people -I think that tells you how this campaign is going."