TORONTO — Canadians stuck with their ruling party in parliamentary elections Tuesday, as Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper overcame opposition attempts to tether him to "Bush-style policies" that would allow the financial crisis in the United States to spread to Canada.
In his campaign, Harper, 49, insisted that the Conservatives were best equipped to lead the nation in uncertain economic times. He tried to project a reassuring image, frequently turning up in photographs in a much-mocked blue sweater and taking his children to school.
The opposition attacks may have had some effect: Harper's party made substantial gains but fell 12 seats short of a majority in the 308-seat lower house of Parliament, winning a total of 143, according to initial results. Just as in his first term, Harper will have to depend on the cooperation of other parties to pass major legislation.
Until recently, Harper's center-right party had a 10-point lead in polls over the left-leaning Liberals. The Liberals cut that lead by half by running political ads in the final weeks before the campaign asking about "Harpernomics."
"What's Harper really planning?" the ad said. "More Bush-style policies . . ."
But the Liberals, led by stodgy academic Stephane Dion, 53, were never able to connect with voters and sell their major policy plank, known as the "Green Shift," an environmentally friendly program that included a carbon tax. Harper and his party painted it as a tax grab.
"Conservatives were successful in making leadership an issue and telling Canadians they should stick with a government that has not made any major mistakes in its 2 1/2 years in office," University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman said.
Harper's campaign got some help from major financial institutions last week when the International Monetary Fund and the World Economic Forum said that Canada was in good shape to weather the economic storm.
But his quest for a majority was hindered when his government's planned cuts to culture and arts funding did not play well in Quebec, where he had hoped to make significant gains.
And some Canadians were not convinced about his skills in tough times.
"Harper is blind on the economy: He's ignoring the job losses in the manufacturing sector, especially here in Ontario," David Ostrihon, an executive with a food services company in Ontario, who supports the left-of-center New Democratic Party, said while watching election results in Woody's, a pub in downtown Toronto.
"I don't trust him on the social agenda," said Rich Leahy, a Toronto hospital worker who was also at the pub. "Is he going to roll back gay rights? He's a hypocrite with religious fervor."
Harper was also hurt by what has become a five-party political system in Canada.
"It's very difficult to get a majority in this 'pizza Parliament,' " Wiseman said.
Surprisingly, with Canada suffering more casualties in Afghanistan than any other country except the U.S., the nation's involvement there was not a major issue in the campaign.
Special correspondent Van Velzen reported from Toronto and Times staff writer Baum from New York.