Canada's surging conservatives

Monday's election is expected to end the Liberals' 13-year hold on power.

Canada's Conservatives have captured the momentum as the country nears its Jan. 23 election date, with polls showing a majority of Canadians would be happy to see the Liberal Party's 13-year winning streak come to an end.

Perhaps the most dramatic campaign story has unfolded in Quebec, where Conservatives failed to win a single seat in the last election. According to a recent poll, the Conservatives' leader, Stephen Harper, is more popular in Quebec than he is in his home province of Alberta, the most conservative region in the country.

"That's like saying George Bush has higher positives [ratings] in Massachusetts than in the state of Texas," says Tim Woolstencroft, managing partner with Strategic Counsel, the Toronto firm that conducted the poll. "It's stunning." Nationwide, Mr. Harper's favorable rating is over 50 percent.

Though Liberals are warning of Harper's ties to the American right, and American conservatives are cheering Harper, the Canadian Conservative leader bears little resemblance to his US counterparts.

This isn't your typical US conservative

Throughout the campaign, Harper has reassured Canadians he will uphold the nation's extensive social-service network, especially the healthcare system. He has also promised not to seek any changes in abortion law. And although he initially supported the US war in Iraq, Harper has more recently said he would not send Canadian troops there.

Some see parallels between Harper's campaign and the successful election bid of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, which ended the 13-year rule of the more liberal Australian Labour Party.

Like Mr. Howard's campaign, Harper's featured solid, easily understandable promises with price tags attached: a $100-per-month child-care subsidy for parents, for example, and pledge to cut the federal sales tax to 5 percent from 7 percent.

"Cash value for voters, cash for child care - they can understand what that means," says Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto.

Meanwhile, the Liberals "didn't say much in the first half of the campaign, and then they got a lot of bad news," he adds, referring to a corruption scandal miring the Liberals' campaign.

Clean government

Harper's campaign focused on promises to clean up government in the wake of a Liberal corruption scandal. In November, Justice John Gomery released the results of his investigation into an advertising kickback scandal in Quebec in the 1990s.

While the report exonerated Mr. Martin, who was finance minister at the time, Justice Gomery said former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and others with ties to the Liberals bear responsibility for the misspending of millions of dollars of public money meant for a national unity campaign in the French-speaking province.

The Conservatives' attempt to paint the Liberals as corrupt was bolstered at the end of December, when federal police confirmed they were investigating allegations that Liberal officials secretly tipped off certain investors before an important tax policy announcement.

Though that investigation is not expected to be completed for several months, it added to Martin's woes and hindered his efforts to spread his party's message.

"The Liberals have self-destructed," says Professor Clarkson, who wrote a recent book called "Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics."

Clarkson says he's now working on a sequel: "How the Big Red Machine Became the Little Red Machine."

While several Liberal officials garnered negative publicity during the campaign for ill-considered remarks, Conservative politicians ran a nearly error-free campaign. There were no repeats of the 2004 election, when outspoken Alberta premier Ralph Klein stirred up controversy with remarks about privatizing healthcare.

Asked about his restraint in this campaign, Mr. Klein quipped, "Duct tape works."

Liberals' tactics and hopes foiled

In a similar election19 months ago, the Liberal campaign of Prime Minister Paul Martin persuaded Canadians that a Conservative government led by Harper would be too different, too extreme, and just too right-wing.

But similar tactics this time have fallen on deaf ears. And Harper has successfully campaigned on an anticorruption platform as a moderate who would bring positive but not drastic change to Canada.

A Strategic Counsel poll conducted for The Globe and Mail newspaper Jan. 18-21 gave the Conservatives a 10-point lead over the Liberals, with the two parties registering support of 37 percent and 27 percent respectively.

Four other independent polls confirm the Conservatives' momentum.

"Canadians haven't shifted to the right - Conservatives have moved to the center," says Mr. Woolstencroft of The Strategic Counsel.

When the campaign started in late November, most analysts bet the result would be another minority Liberal government.

Now the big debate is whether the Conservatives will win a minority or a majority in Parliament.

"It would take a miracle" for Liberals to win this election, Woolstencroft says. "The train has long left the station."

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