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Fearing Harper could win a majority, rivals sound early alarm

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    Fearing Harper could win a majority, rivals sound early alarm CAMPBELL CLARK AND DANIEL LEBLANC From Saturday s Globe and Mail September 6, 2008 at 1:35 AM EDT
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      Fearing Harper could win a majority, rivals sound early alarm

      From Saturday's Globe and Mail

      September 6, 2008 at 1:35 AM EDT


      OTTAWA - Stephen Harper's opponents are breaking out sharp early warnings as polls suggest the Conservatives are rising toward majority-government territory, with the Bloc Québécois already saying the Tories are close, and the Liberals planning to start the campaign on an attack footing.

      Even before the campaign begins Sunday, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe issued the kind of stop-a-majority plea that is usually a last-ditch tactic. The Liberals, reluctant to follow suit because it implies they are ceding their chance at power, nonetheless hinted that the prospect of a Tory majority might shake up voters.

      In Montreal on Friday, Mr. Duceppe used the Conservatives' boost in the polls to argue that Quebeckers must elect Bloc MPs or Mr. Harper will have free rein.

      "His objective is to enact his hidden agenda in its entirety, in a majority government," Mr. Duceppe said at a news conference.

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      "That's what he wants, a majority government, and let's not fool ourselves, a majority is within his reach."

      The Liberals are preparing to open the campaign by attacking Mr. Harper's record in an attempt to hobble his advantage in the rankings as best person to be prime minister. They will leave their own platform for a second wave.

      And while Liberal strategists deem an overt plea to prevent a Tory majority a strategic mistake - because it would imply they don't expect to win - some hinted the polls on the eve of this election campaign might at least shake up their voters.

      "Canadians . will always have a thought in the back of their mind, which is, 'Imagine if this were a majority Conservative government,'" said Montreal Liberal MP Denis Coderre.

      The party's national campaign co-chairman, Senator David Smith, said: "A lot of people will be thinking that to themselves. But I'm not saying it."

      On Friday, Mr. Harper removed any lingering doubts that he will call an election when his office announced he will visit Governor-General Michaëlle Jean tomorrow morning at 8:05 to ask her to dissolve Parliament. Election day is expected to be Oct. 14.

      Mr. Harper directly called the head of the Canadian Jewish Congress to explain his decision to hold the vote at the start of the Jewish celebration of Sukkot, noting that people can vote in advance polls.

      And on the last working day before the writ is dropped, Mr. Harper nominated a new Supreme Court judge, Thomas Cromwell, made a raft of political appointments and struck a deal with General Motors in which the company will commit to production and investment in two Ontario plants.

      A Strategic Counsel poll in Tuesday's Globe and Mail showed that the Conservatives have 37 per cent support, placing them within striking distance of a majority government, typically reached at about 40 per cent.

      On Thursday, the CBC released an Environics survey showing the Conservatives at 38 per cent, the Liberals at 28 per cent and the NDP at 19 per cent.

      And a new poll by Innovative Research Group also shows the Tories moving in on majority territory.

      Innovative Research Group does not re-distribute undecided voters in its surveys, but instead counts respondents that say they will vote for a party or are leaning toward it. And its results give the Conservatives a strong lead, with 36 per cent, compared with 29 per cent for the Liberals and 13 per cent for the NDP.

      "The Conservatives are pulling away from the Liberal levels," said Innovative Research Group pollster Simon McDougall.

      The big game-changer is Quebec, where the Bloc has fallen 10 percentage points, to 29 per cent, from a poll taken just before the 2006 election. The Conservatives have inched up to 25 per cent, the Liberals are at 20 and the NDP at 15.

      Although stronger support is good news for the Conservatives, in the past they have sometimes faced a backlash when they approached the majority threshold.

      Whether that's still true is an open question: In the Strategic Counsel poll, 46 per cent picked Mr. Harper as the leader they thought would be better as prime minister of a majority government, far ahead of Mr. Dion at 22 per cent.

      On Friday, Conservative Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn insisted in a television interview that the Tories still have limited expectations.

      "We are still expecting to be a minority government," he said.

      The NDP, squeezed in 2004 in an apparent late backlash against the idea of a Tory government, played down fears of a Conservative majority.

      Brad Lavigne, communications director for NDP Leader Jack Layton, argued the most important numbers are related to leadership and who Canadians want as their prime minister, and noted Mr. Layton fares better than Mr. Dion.

      "We're going to give Canadians a choice: Do you want Mr. Harper, a strong leader, as your prime minister, or someone like Jack Layton, a strong leader, as your prime minister?" Mr. Lavigne said.

      For the Liberals, the question is whether the Conservatives' rise in polls is just a reaction to a heavy bombardment of Tory TV ads and pre-campaign government announcements that the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said on Friday would cost Canadians $8.8-billion.

      Several Liberals said that attacks on Mr. Harper's record will be the party's opening focus, before its own platform.

      "First off, we'll look at the record of the Conservative government, given that governments are defeated. But the main issue will be, 'In what kind of society do you want to live?'" Mr. Coderre said.

      Scott Reid, who was communications director to prime minister Paul Martin, said the polls will force reporters to ask questions about a Conservative majority, even if the Liberals don't.

      But he said voters remain skeptical of Mr. Harper, and the Liberals have to show he is cynical and manipulative. "He's a hundred kinds of nasty, he's a bully, and he's not looking out for your interests," Mr. Reid said.

      "If we don't persuade people first that they need to get rid of Stephen Harper, then we won't get to the discussion about what kind of alternative we represent," he said.

      With a report from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal

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