Canada's prime minister, rival go coast to coast before election

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

OTTAWA -- Canada's Conservative prime minister and his Liberal rival crisscrossed the country Monday in a final day of campaigning, with voters concerned the ruling party is out of touch but also that the opposition's leader has trouble communicating in English.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has had a tenuous hold on power since the 2006 election and is forced to rely on the opposition to pass legislation, called today's vote in hopes of winning the 155 seats needed for a majority in the 308-seat Parliament.

But Harper, the first G-7 leader to face election since the global credit crisis worsened, has been hurt by his slow reaction to the market meltdown, and that -- among other missteps -- may have cost him his bid for the majority.

Opponents are painting Harper as a right-winger who would reshape the landscape like a U.S.-style Republican.

"Just because someone's a Conservative doesn't mean he's George Bush," Harper told voters in Quebec on Saturday.

Harper's rival, Liberal leader Stephane Dion, hopped from the Atlantic coast province of New Brunswick inland to Quebec and then toward the city of Vancouver on the Pacific coast in a last minute blitz of campaign stops. He urged the divided left to vote for his party.

Dion is a former professor from the French-speaking province of Quebec whose struggles to speak English have become an issue. Dion's English is heavily accented and he stumbles over words. His grammar is often mangled.

"It's a handicap that a lot of people won't forgive him for. It just causes a lot of people to turn off. They claim they don't understand him," said Robert Bothwell, director of the international relations program at the University of Toronto.

Polls at the start of the campaign had Harper winning a majority, but Harper hurt himself when he said during a debate that Canadians were not concerned about their jobs or mortgages. Days later, he said stocks were cheap.

Canada's main stock exchange then had its worst week in almost 70 years.

Harper has since tried to undue the damage by saying he knows Canadians are worried. He contrasted Canada's economic and fiscal performance to the more dire situation in the U.S.

"Americans are running deficits. We're running surpluses. Americans are incurring debt. We're paying down debt," Harper said.

"We have the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years ... We have a better economic situation than the United States because, for two and a half years, we have made better choices."

The prime minister has maintained that Canada will avoid the mortgage meltdown and banking crisis that are hitting the United States and Europe hard. But his government announced last week that it will buy up to $21 billion in mortgages from the country's banks in an effort to maintain the availability of credit.

Analysts said Harper wanted the election before the economy got worse and ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, which could put a Democrat in the White House and encourage Canadians to choose a more liberal government.

The prime minister's final campaign stops Monday also spanned the country: after morning visits to Canada's far eastern Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, he headed to Vancouver in the far west and was to finish the day in Calgary, Alberta.

The opposition Liberals have traditionally been the party in power in Canada, forming the government for more than two-thirds of the last 100 years.

Dion has moved the party to the crowded left by staking his leadership on a "Green Shift" tax plan. Dion, a former environment minister who named his dog Kyoto after the Japanese site of the first climate change accord, wants to introduce a carbon tax on all fossil fuels except gasoline.

The Conservatives have been targeting Dion's plan in television and radio ads, saying it would drive up energy costs. Dion has said he would offset the higher energy prices by cutting income taxes.

Dion has had little success selling the plan to Canadians, many of whom view him as a weak leader.

As Conservative leader, Harper reduced former Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal government to a minority in 2004 and he defeated Martin in early 2006 to form his own minority government.

A Harris-Decima poll put voter support for Conservatives at 34 percent, followed by the Liberals at 25 and the New Democrats at 19 percent. The Bloc Quebecois was at 11 percent and the Green party had 9 percent.

The poll represented 1,218 interviews conducted Thursday through Sunday with a margin of error of 2.7 per cent.

Harper controlled 127 seats across Canada in the last Parliament. He needs 155 seats for a majority government.

If he wins another minority Harper is expected to rely on the opposition to pass budgets and legislation on a vote by vote basis, as he did in the previous Parliament. The opposition parties could form a coalition and topple Harper if they won enough seats for a majority but analysts say that is unlikely.

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