On day one of the election campaign, Stephen Harper was asked about same-sex “marriage” and his response was completely predictable: he would be open to revisiting the issue in the next parliament and that he would allow a free vote.

The next day the media dutifully reported that Harper dropped the “divisive” and “controversial” issue of same-sex “marriage” into the election campaign but after initial chastisement, he was applauded for strategic brilliance: better to bring up the issue early and on one’s own rather than later and defensively.

The problem is, Harper didn’t announce it as a policy but in reply to a reporter’s question. The difference between replying to a question from a journalist and making a planned policy pronouncement (as Harper did with his child care, tax and anti-crime policies) is that such off-the-cuff remarks can be indicative of a lack of interest in the issue. While many Conservative MPs and candidates are eager to revisit the marriage issue, Harper has never placed much emphasis on social conservatism.

That much was clear when Harper, in response to attacks by Prime Minister Paul Martin, said he would not invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter to over-ride a possible pro same-sex “marriage” Supreme Court decision. Martin said it was the job of the prime minister to defend the Charter, which he argues mandates marriage rights for same-sex couples, and queried Harper over the use of the notwithstanding clause. Harper said he was not prepared to invoke section 32 of the Charter, suggesting it would be unnecessary.

Charles McVety, head of Canada Christian College and a co-founder of Defend Marriage Canada, said he understood the pitfalls of answering a purely hypothetical question – would Harper use the notwithstanding clause if Parliament passed a law restoring the traditional definition of marriage and the Supreme Court of Canada decided that such a law violated the equal protection guarantees of the Charter – but went on to say that Harper’s response was “not the position that we would like Mr. Harper to take.”

In its January newsletter, Campaign Life Coalition says that Harper is missing an opportunity to tap into disenchanted voters who no longer feel that politicians represent their concerns or worldview.

A Leger Marketing/CPAC poll seems to back CLC’s argument. In a poll conducted Dec. 9-13, Leger Marketing found that 55 per cent of respondents favoured a free vote in Parliament on the issue, with just 36 per cent opposed to the idea. Notably a majority of both Liberals and Conservative supporters favour re-opening the issue and allowing a free vote – 54 per cent of Liberals and 61 per cent of Conservatives.

Pro-family leaders hope that Harper will maximize the political benefits of this issue by clearly articulating a strong pro-marriage stance and changing his mind on ruling out use of the notwithstanding clause. If Leger’s poll is true, the party could reap great rewards on election day by making a principled stand in defense of traditional marriage.