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Market crisis may shape the Canadian vote

Premier Harper is favored in Tuesday's vote, but slipped in polls over economic woes.

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The party's strategy has been to portray Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion as weak and ineffective. Analysts say the Liberal leader's campaign suffered early on because of Mr. Dion's struggle with English and his inability to effectively convey the benefits of his key policy plank, the green shift or carbon tax.

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Still, Harper appears to have undermined his push to win new seats following a series of gaffes in recent weeks that have left voters with the impression that he's out of touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens. While Canadians watched in horror as tumbling stock markets decimated their retirement savings, Harper told voters not to worry because the downdraft presented "buying opportunities."

"[T]oo often the prime minister seems like a technocrat, struggling to connect on an emotional level with voters," says Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary.

Worse, plans for a major electoral breakthrough by the Conservatives in Quebec also appear to have fallen off the rails. Harper inadvertently unleashed a backlash from Quebec voters after he supported an earlier decision to cut $45-million to arts programs that Quebeckers see as crucial to maintaining their French culture. He also took a hard-line approach to youth offenders that proved out of step with the socially progressive province, Young says.

Harper spent Sunday trying to shore up votes in Quebec, a key province for any party looking to win a majority. "The leader of the bloc wants Quebeckers to stay in the hallways with their arms crossed," Harper said. "Send an MP to Ottawa who will be able to improve your economic situation, who will defend Quebec values."

Meanwhile, at an early Sunday morning rally in Scarborough, Ont., Dion said his party will restore Canada's status on the international stage. "The world wants Canada back ... and that is only possible with a progressive government, a Liberal government," he said.

Paul Nesbitt-Larking, chair of political science of Huron University College in London, Ontario, says he believes the Liberals could still upstage the Conservatives when the final votes are tallied. "With so many growing forces of opposition to the Conservatives, the question is whether Mr. Dion and the Liberals can suck up enough strategic votes from the Green [Party] and NDP to win.... It's not beyond the realm of possibilities," Professor Nesbitt-Larking says.

Meanwhile, the election comes as signs are growing that Canada is headed for a recession, notably the loss of more than 400,000 jobs in Ontario's manufacturing sector over the past few years. Still, unlike the US, banks are well capitalized and the federal government has been running a budget surplus for more than a decade.