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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Howard Tries to Flee Hard-Line Reputation

HYTHE, England -- The candidate has switched his navy blue suit jacket for a sweater and a blue rosette with his name: Michael Howard.

"Hello, how are you?" he asked strangers on Saturday as he propelled himself and a retinue of camera crews and reporters briskly down the high street in this seaside town.

"I hope I can have your support on May 5," election day, said Howard, the opposition Conservative leader, who is challenging British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

On the fifth day of Britain's election campaign, Howard's choreographed appearance seemed intended to project the image that has eluded him for years -- that of a regular, if political, guy.

But as he approaches his first -- and possibly last -- effort to win power, Howard, 63, seems haunted by his role as the hard-line interior minister during part of a Conservative era that lasted for 18 years, until Blair's Labour Party came to power in 1997.

At that time, a fellow Conservative, Anne Widdecombe, said there was "something of the night" about Howard.

Indeed, more recently, when he dismissed a fellow conservative candidate, another former member of his party, Teresa Gorman, updated the old label. "There is something of the knife about him," she said.

If fellow Conservatives cannot bring themselves to like him, why should the voters?

"Michael Howard has this terrible problem that people don't warm to him," said Michael Crick, author of a newly published biography called "In Search of Michael Howard." "They don't like him, and yet he can be a very charming, likable guy."

Howard is the son of immigrants. His father came from a small village in Romania, and those remotely Transylvanian roots have encouraged cartoonists to depict Howard as Count Dracula. "Are you drinking what we're drinking?" a cartoon in the left-leaning Guardian asked under a drawing of Howard as a vampire, mocking the Conservatives' campaign slogan: "Are you thinking what we're thinking?"

As home secretary, he acquired a reputation for draconian measures. "Prison works," he once said. He was associated, too, with introducing a highly unpopular local tax that was withdrawn after some of the worst riots the country had experienced, and that remains in Britain's political mythology as an icon of Conservative misrule.

His tough positions on crime, anti-social behavior and immigration may well cement support among bedrock Conservative voters and even lure some disaffected Labour supporters.

But, said Andrew Grice in a column in The Independent, "when the Conservatives narrow Labour's lead, it scares the Labour disaffected back into the fold."

Howard's adversaries suggest that his hard-line positions, like his demand for immigration quotas, tap into a vein of xenophobia and intolerance.

Most polls forecast that Blair will win on May 5, albeit with a smaller majority than his landslides in 1997 and 2001.