TORONTO (AP) — Back in the days when he was an out-of-office lawmaker with uncertain prospects, Stephen Harper did not need to pull his punches. His caustic verdict on Canada still is remembered 14 years later: "a welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it."
Yet as prime minister and Conservative Party leader, he has gone on to do what many would have thought impossible: He has won two elections in a row, and despite never commanding a majority in Parliament, has managed to nudge an instinctively liberal country ever further to the right.
Now Harper looks set for a third term when Canadians go to the polls on May 2, and this time he is asking voters to give him a majority in the 308-member house; he has been loath to do that previously lest he be accused of right-wing overreach. Most polls predict he again will fall short, although one has said he will get his coveted majority this time.
Either way, thanks to luck, a fractured opposition and a sharp, strategic mind, the 51-year-old prime minister has put a distinctly more conservative face on the nation of 34 million.
He has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes. He has forthrightly promoted the potential of Alberta's oil sands, the world's second largest oil reserves, despite environmental objections. He has increased spending on the military and staunchly backed Israel's right-wing government. He has extended Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.
The only area that has not felt his conservative touch is the social one: he has said he will not tinker with Canada's liberal abortion and gay rights laws.
Former colleagues of Harper say his long-term goals are to kill the widely entrenched notion that the Liberals — the party of MacKenzie King, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau — are the natural party of government in Canada, and to redefine what it means to be Canadian.
"He's trying to dampen the idea that the Liberal Party is the party of Canada, that they invented the flag. You can be a patriotic Canadian and not be a Liberal; you can actually be a Conservative. That's a lasting contribution, and that is a change," says Ian Brodie, Harper's chief of staff from 2006 to 2008.
Gerry Nicholls, who worked under Harper at a conservative think tank, says "His main goal, his obsession, is to destroy the Liberal Party."
But he says defeating the Liberals also has meant co-opting some of their fiscal policies, expanding government and befriending Quebec nationalists, whom he impresses with his fluency in French and his regular public use of the language.
In that 1997 speech, Harper decried "the fact that we have very low economic growth, a standard of living substantially lower than yours (America's), a massive brain drain of young professionals to your country, and double the unemployment rate of the United States."
Things have improved greatly since then — Canada survived the global financial meltdown in relatively strong shape and has recovered almost all jobs lost during the recession, while its banking sector remains intact. Harper likes to take the credit, but here too he owes a debt to his Liberal predecessors; it was they who installed the banking regulations that did much to shield Canadians from the recession.
"The banks would have been just thrilled to do what Wall Street was doing, but the previous Liberal government wouldn't allow them to do it and Harper takes credit for that," says Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto.
Harper grew up in the tony suburbs of Toronto. After high school, he dropped out of the University of Toronto and made oil-rich, highly conservative Alberta his adopted home. He worked in the mailroom of petroleum giant Imperial Oil, then got his masters in economics at the University of Calgary.
In 1991 he married Laureen Teskey, an Albertan graphic designer and motorcycle enthusiast. They have two children, Benjamin and Rachel.
Once a member of his high school's Young Liberals Club, Harper's politics changed as he matured. He became a founding member of the populist Reform Party, serving in parliament from 1993 to 1997, before leaving to head a free enterprise think tank.
He returned to politics to forge an alliance of old and new Tory parties to form the Conservative Party of Canada. In his first election as party leader, in 2004, he lost to the Liberals; in his second, two years later, he became prime minister, but without a majority. Harper called another election in 2008 but another minority government resulted.
Harper is accused of being a controlling micromanager, but Tom Flanagan, his former campaign manager, says tight control is essential in a minority government.
Lawrence Martin, a political columnist for The Globe and Mail newspaper and author of "Harperland: The Politics of Control," calls him "the most autocratic and partisan prime minister Canada has ever had," and believes it is the reason he cannot win a majority.
Martin accuses him of bringing "a degree of malice that you really don't see with other prime ministers. He's a highly skilled prime minister, but people who worked with him were just struck by his hatred for his political opponents."
Former colleagues describe Harper as a shy policy wonk who prefers working in his office to travel, campaigning or working a room. He stirred controversy with his resort to powers that allowed him to suspend Parliament temporarily and was censured for failing to brief Parliament fully on critical financial decisions.
That and his determination to cut corporate taxes led to the motions that brought down his government and forced the current election.
In recent years he has sought to lighten up in public, singing and playing the piano at a gala at Ottawa's National Arts Centre and performing with a rock band at the Conservatives' Christmas party.
Despite their political differences, Brodie says, Harper gets on better with Barack Obama than he did with George W. Bush, possibly preferring the current U.S. president's cerebral style to his predecessor's backslapping Texas charm.
Bothwell, the professor, says some Canadians have warmed up to Harper but he still has a "chilly personality." Polls have long put support for the Harper Conservatives at 35 to 40 percent.
"He's had the luxury of a divided opposition," Flanagan said. "Four parties are splitting up the left and center vote and he's able to triumph from that basis."
The Conservatives have built support in rural areas and with the "Tim Horton's crowd" — referring to a chain of doughnut shops popular with blue-collar Canadians. They also have blitzed the country with TV attack ads, running them even during telecasts of the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl.
To last in office through the longest period of minority government in Canadian history, however, Harper has had to engage in a constant balancing act.
David Emerson, who was a Liberal government minister before defecting to Harper's government, says his former boss has deliberately avoided sweeping policy changes that could derail his government.
Harper, he says, "has focused on issues that are bite-sized and achievable. But when you add them all up you could argue that he does have a long-term vision and we're inexorably marching in that direction."