Tories' support shoots up ahead of Canada polls

Par Bernard Simon

Élections 2006

Canada's election campaign has taken a dramatic turn with several opinion polls suggesting that the opposition Conservatives could supplant the Liberals in a minority government.
Political analysts have cautioned that much could change by polling day on January 23. At least a third of voters either remain undecided or have indicated they could change their minds. The final series of party leaders' TV debates early next week could produce new shifts in public opinion.
Nonetheless, the latest polls confirm signs of growing confidence in the Conservative camp and rising frustration among Liberals. The Toronto Star speculated yesterday on the composition of a Conservative cabinet.
"This will be a remarkable shock for a lot of folks," said Michael Adams, president of Environics, a polling firm. He says the Conservative leader Stephen Harper "has been very deft in moderating his policies to the point where there's some differentiation with the Liberals, but not so much as to turn off risk-averse Canadians".
One big surprise has been a rise in Conservative support in Quebec, putting the separatist Bloc Quebecois on the defensive for the first time in the six-week campaign. According to Leger Marketing, support for the Conservatives has grown from 7 to 16 per cent over the past fortnight.
The Tories will be lucky to win a single seat in the French-speaking province. But, if their current support holds, they could stymie the separatists' goal of garnering more than half the votes for the first time. The Tories have gained attention in the province by pledging to devolve more federal taxation powers and to give Quebec a bigger say on the international stage.
Meanwhile, the Liberals have been dogged by a series of mishaps, ranging from technical problems with their campaign aircraft to a police investigation into insider trading ahead of a government announcement last November on the tax treatment of income trusts, a popular investment vehicle.
Paul Martin, prime minister, on Thursday acknowledged his campaign had suffered setbacks, but expressed confidence the Liberals would bounce back, as they did in the final weeks before the last election in June 2004.
Mr Harper has seized the initiative from the outset of the campaign with a series of eye-catching policy announcements, notably a proposed cut in the goods and services tax from 7 per cent to 5 per cent.
The Conservatives have also generally steered clear of divisive social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. But by taking a tougher line on law enforcement than other parties, they have benefited from a surge in public concern about gun violence in the wake of a spate of shootings in Toronto and Vancouver over the Christmas holidays.
The odds remain slim that either of the main parties will win enough of the 308 seats in parliament to form a majority government.
Mr Adams said even the Tories' recent surge was unlikely to gain them more than a handful of seats in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, the three biggest cities. The Bloc is still set to win an overwhelming majority of Quebec's 75 seats.

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