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Canadians prepare to head to polls

Prime minister, rival crisscross country

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 Vancouver, B.C., in a last minute blitz of campaign stops. He urged the divided left to vote for his party and dismissed talk he would step down as party leader if he loses.

Dion is a former professor from the French-speaking province of Quebec whose struggles to communicate in English have become an issue. Dion’s English is heavily accented and awkward. He stumbles over words during speeches, and 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 nearly 70 years.

Harper has since tried to undo the damage by saying he knows Canadians are worried. He contrasted Canada’s economic and fiscal performance to the more dire situation in the United States.

“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 2  1/2 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 availability of credit.

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 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.


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