By Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Liberals are taking solace from the old maxim that he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.

Stephane Dion's decision last week to run away from an election over the Harper government's throne speech, has bought the demoralized Grits some precious time to regroup.

However brief it turns out to be - and some Liberals believe it may be as little as a few weeks - the leader is hoping to use the hard-won reprieve to get the party back in fighting form.

Among the measures planned, insiders say Dion will:

- Begin selectively unveiling platform planks, giving Canadians a better idea of what he and the Liberals stand for.

- Ensure the party is election ready through the continued shakeup of his inner circle, party brass and campaign team, and by intensified candidate recruitment.

- Make better use of unscripted, interactive forums - including daily question period in the House of Commons and townhall-style encounters with voters - to demonstrate that Dion, the sober policy wonk, also has a scrappy, feisty side.

But if any of those tactics are to be successful, Liberals concede they must first develop some discipline.

Discipline to weather the inevitable bumps in the road without panicking. Discipline to deliver a clear message in a unified way. Discipline to keep the focus resolutely on the deficiencies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, rather than publicly musing about their own failings.

"We have to be disciplined and we have to stand behind our leader and I think we understand that," said Ajax-Pickering MP Mark Holland.

Since the Liberals' humiliating defeat in three Quebec byelections last month, including their longtime bastion of Outremont, Dion and his party have been in a tailspin.

Quebec Liberals, including some MPs, openly expressed doubts about the leader and his team. Key players quit, including the party's national director and the executive director of the Quebec wing. And several Quebec candidates announced they won't run for the party after all, although former astronaut Marc Garneau changed his mind and rejoined the team Friday.

Just hours before the throne speech was unveiled, Dion was even left briefly without a Quebec lieutenant when MP Marcel Proulx quit and two Montreal MPs, Denis Coderre and Pablo Rodriguez, refused invitations to step into the breach.

Amid that chaos, Dion had little choice but to take a dive on the throne speech, despite his personal preference to defeat the government. The party and the leader emerged weakened from the whole episode and many MPs are now determined to avoid a repeat performance.

"I think the last two caucus meetings we've had, the very, very strong consensus was around the need to show more discipline and discretion," said New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc.

Still, opinion is split over how Dion should handle those who air the party's dirty laundry in public. Privately, some MPs are grumbling about Dion's efforts to give prominent roles to Garneau, Coderre and Rodriguez. They see it as rewarding bad behaviour.

But others, like Toronto MP John Godfrey, argue that the leader has to be understanding of the special challenges faced by Quebec Liberals, whose ranks were devastated by the sponsorship scandal.
Still others suggest that self-preservation will eventually silence the malcontents more effectively than any slap on the wrist.
"Sometimes a bit of a cold shower helps unite people. I sense that's what's been happening the last few days," said Senator David Smith, the veteran party war horse recruited recently by Dion to co-chair the national campaign.
While Dion intends to offer voters an alternative vision, many Liberals believe their best hope lies in exploiting lingering discomfort among voters with the Tories' "far-right" agenda and Harper's "bullying" style of leadership, as Grits have characterized it.
Hence, Liberals used last week's resumption of Parliament to zero in on alleged ethical lapses (campaign financing irregularities, patronage in judicial appointments) and Harper's preremptory refusal to accept any amendments to his crime package, on threat of a snap election.
In allowing the government to survive a confidence vote on the throne speech, Godfrey says Liberals "bought time to remind people of why question period is so useful to opposition parties."
Harper inevitably ends up demonstrating his "petty, mean" side and thus, Godfrey predicts: "The longer we keep reminding people of that through daily contact in the House of Commons, the sooner the free run the government's had over the summer comes to an end."
If that seems like wishful thinking, Liberals note that as little as four months ago, just before Parliament broke for the summer, the Tories were on the ropes. They'd seemingly run out of policy initiatives, had lost control of the parliamentary agenda and were beset by conflicting messages, particularly on the Afghanistan mission.

Copyright © 2007 Canadian Press