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Canadian Conservatives Lead in Polls on Eve of Vote

As the margin narrows, however, Liberals are hoping for another last-minute upset.

January 23, 2006|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — Canadians appear ready to end 12 years of Liberal Party rule in today's election but are uncertain about the alternative offered by the opposition Conservatives, polls show.

The Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, clung to a 7 to 10 percentage point lead over Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal Party, according to several polls. A small narrowing in the margin, however, sparked hopes among Liberals for a repeat of the last-minute upset that kept the party in power in 2004.

Polls also indicate that a significant portion of the Liberals' lost votes are going to small parties, not just the Conservatives.

"Clearly, people have an appetite for change," said Tim Woolstencroft, a managing partner of the polling firm Strategic Counsel. "The issue was, were they comfortable with change that the Conservatives would bring? Harper has purposefully defanged his platform in a way to make that change appear not so threatening."

Martin has hopscotched the country in the final week of the race to warn that the Conservatives would lead Canada away from its progressive values toward a U.S.-style healthcare system and opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

"We have a party that basically draws its influences from the furthest right of the U.S. conservative movement," Martin told supporters during a rally in Brampton last week. "Let me tell you, Stephen Harper, we have our own values in Canada of compassion, generosity and understanding and respect from each other and we don't have to borrow from the furthest right in the U.S. conservative movement."

Conservative leader Harper, who has played on voter disillusionment with a long-standing kickback scandal, characterized the Liberal administration as "a tired, directionless, scandal-plagued government."

At the same time, the Conservatives have issued a policy a day aimed at bringing the party toward the center and silenced their more extreme leaders. Harper, meanwhile, put less emphasis on his agenda to give more power to the provinces and said that overturning abortion rights and same-sex marriage are not priorities.

That shift has made voters who rejected Harper's party at the last minute in 2004 more at ease with him this time, analysts say. Many voters also take comfort in the likelihood that even if the Conservatives win, they are not expected to take a majority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons and would have to cooperate with other parties to govern.

Although the Conservatives have long had a lock on Canada's western region, Harper predicted on Saturday that for the first time in years, his party would win seats in eastern cities, the traditional Liberal strongholds that have been key to winning national elections.

Sandy Sheldrick, a Toronto businesswoman, is one example.

"It's a hard decision," Sheldrick said. "The Liberals have been in power for 12 years, and things aren't really that different. I think it's time to give someone else a chance."

The St. Paul's electoral district in Toronto has been a bellwether for the entire country, and both sides worry that it is up for grabs.

The lawns of this upper-middle-class neighborhood are sprinkled with red signs supporting the Liberal minister of state for public health, Carolyn Bennett, as well as blue signs for her well-known Conservative opponent, former TV news anchor Peter Kent. Some lawns sport both.

Bennett, dressed in a Liberal red wool coat and red suede boots, knocked on doors and talked to people on the street, most of whom complained about the healthcare system.

Michelle Harris, 51, hugged Bennett, explaining to observers that the popular local doctor delivered all four of her children. Two of them, she added, are old enough to vote.

But Harris told Bennett that their shared history of trust was the only reason she was still voting Liberal. "Martin does not appear trustworthy," she said. "He is always backpedaling."

Bennett's aides checked off another qualified "yes" vote on their neighborhood map. They said Bennett has converted many people in the door-to-door campaign. But they feel a bit of backlash among traditionally Liberal voters.

"You can't count on anything these days, so we're working very hard," Bennett said.

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