John Ivison is right to note that the Cons' latest ad reflects the Harper braintrust sticking to what seems to have been a long-established plan. But it's worth highlighting how that plan has been overtaken by events - and how even the Libs may be able to use the message to their advantage if they're smart in the approach to this fall's federal election.
In principle, a "just not ready" message is tailor-made for a two-party race where a party's ability to attach a single personality flaw to the opposing leader can make all the difference between victory and defeat.
But for the Cons, it represents a couple of important concessions.
As I've written before, the Cons' previous election campaigns were based on portraying the Libs' leader as unfit to govern under any circumstances - or indeed (in Michael Ignatieff's words) as lacking standing to be heard during at all. But "not ready" implies an entirely different standard: that the question to be decided about Justin Trudeau is whether or not he's suited to govern only at a single point in time.
And the softened message from the Cons seems also to signal some recognition that their attacks on opposing parties lack credibility. One has to figure that Stephen Harper would prefer to present a stronger critique if he thought voters would consider it plausible. But after a decade of saturation bombing with Cons propaganda through government and party channels alike, voters have tuned out anything that doesn't sound like what they'd be inclined to say for themselves.
It makes sense in that context for the Cons to turn to focus groups to tell them what messages will work. But that also means there's an awfully limited range of options available.
As for the opposition parties, the NDP surely figures to be happy to see the Cons sticking to their false assumption that the election will be a two-party race. (And it wouldn't be the first time that a right-wing party's failure to take the NDP seriously might lead to major progressive change.)
If the public accepts the ad's message - and particularly if Trudeau reinforces it at all during the course of the campaign - then Tom Mulcair can easily become the rallying point for opposition simply by showing that he's ready to govern. And that doesn't figure to be a problem for a leader with his talent and experience.
Indeed, Mulcair might well fit neatly into a Goldilocks scenario between a tired Harper and a not-ready Trudeau.
But even for the Libs, the new ad represents only a challenge rather than a defeat. And it's one they've presumably understood for some time now.
Unlike the vague criticisms of Dion and Ignatieff, the "not ready" critique is one which can be tested by how the Libs run their campaign. If Trudeau holds his own on the campaign trail and particularly in the leaders' debates, then the Cons' last attempt to bargain for another term in power will fail. And the particular criticism might also yield some fruit in developing counterattacks - such a "Harper thinks he knows it all" theme based on his presuming to dictate when Trudeau is ready, with former PMs taking to the stage to highlight the value of comparative humility and a willingness to learn.
Even if Trudeau can't hold up or counterattack immediately, though, he can easily preserve his own position by treating the election result as a "not yet" rather than a "no". And if a public consensus emerges behind the "not ready" messsage, the resulting attraction of progressive votes to the NDP doesn't particularly help the Cons either.
The Cons then seem to be betting that Trudeau's performance will be subject to just enough interpretation to split the vote for change while ceding the right to Harper. (Or they might hang on if Trudeau and the Libs spend their entire campaign bashing the NDP rather than making a case for change so as to ensure that both alternatives are tarred by election day.)
We'll see whether either comes to pass. But that's an awfully narrow set of possibilities for a sitting majority government which has done little but to plot for its own political fortunes.