HAWKESBURY, Ont. - The idea was to fire up the Liberal party's sputtering engine with a summer bus tour, but the actual engine wouldn't co-operate.

Leader Michael Ignatieff gritted his teeth as the Liberal Express bus, loaded with journalists, MPs and eager young staff members, suddenly ground to a halt on a rural road in southeastern Ontario. An anxious driver frantically called for help for an apparently blown transmission.

An hour later, Ignatieff and the media following him were shuttled in cars and vans to an awaiting crowd of 300 Liberals in an independent recording studio.

"We had a little bump in the road near Hawkesbury," Ignatieff told the supporters. "There's a little rumour circulating that Stephen Harper was seen stealing away in the night with motor oil on his hands."

It was a disappointing snag on the first day of the campaign, which will take Ignatieff to every province and territory over the next two months. Ignatieff's personal popularity, and support for the Liberals, have been languishing badly in the polls despite their best efforts to chip away at the Conservative hold on power.

Buses and planes have foiled struggling leaders in the past. Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe had to acknowledge problems in his campaign when his bus got lost during the 19997 federal election.

Dalton McGuinty also faced mechanical problems on his bus in 1999, which became a metaphor for the entire campaign. He did not win that election.

This Liberal stab at igniting interest among voters is an election-style campaign that will hit BBQs, gazebos and small-town halls. Ignatieff's slogan has been the "politics of persuasion," a quest to convince Canadians he's the right man for the Prime Minister's Office one person at a time.

The Conservatives were quick to take shots at Ignatieff's efforts, dubbing it the "Just Visiting Tour" on t-shirts distributed to the media before the launch. The party continues to emphasize the fact Ignatieff spent three decades outside of Canada as an academic, writer and journalist.

Ignatieff's team have tried to work with that.

Part of the strategy is to distinguish Ignatieff from Harper in his style of governing, casting him as the warm, interested leader while painting his rival as an aloof, cold prime minister.

"This is not how Stephen Harper does politics. Stephen Harper would have you about 25 feet back, he'd have you behind a rope line," Ignatieff told about 50 supporters in Hawkesbury, Ont.. Ignatieff wore a plaid shirt and blue jeans.

"He wouldn't take an unscripted question, he wouldn't wade into the crowd. There's a kind of suspicion of Canadians, and a suspicion, that God help us, something might get out of control."

Although Ignatieff was visiting ridings that were held by the Conservatives, part of the campaign is also about re-engaging the support of Liberals who might have drifted away from the party as it sits in Opposition.

Ignatieff appealed directly to them.

"Together, we can change the country, and we can do it one trip at a time, one meeting at a time, one gathering at a time. We knock on doors, we make the phone calls, we plant the stakes in the ground."

Before the mechanical failure that sidelined his tour in the late afternoon, the mood on the bus had been light and festive. Former MP Don Boudria and Ottawa-area candidate Scott Bradley picked up guitars and led Liberals in Johnny Cash and Stompin' Tom tunes.

There was little outlined in the way of hard policy, although Ignatieff spoke frequently to the small crowds about regional development and his plans on stimulating local economies. In St. Albert, Ont., at a 116-year-old cheese factory of the same name, he saluted the hard working dairy farmers of the area.

He also specifically tipped his hat to the francophone communities that dot the countryside between Ottawa and the Quebec border.

Lucille Pichet, a Liberal from Embrun, Ont., said she had come to support the local candidate, but also to get a closer look at Ignatieff. She took about a dozen photos on her cellphone as he walked by.

"I think he's a very good person. It's fun to see him in the flesh, in jeans, he looks younger than on TV," said Duval. "He's dynamic. I think he's more open than Mr. Harper, and more transparent leader too."

Janine Duval, also from Embrun, Ont., acknowledged that Ignatieff had a tough road ahead if he wanted to become prime minister.

"There's always a chance, I would never say never. You have to be positive to be in this game, and if he wasn't positive he wouldn't have gotten into it."