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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper will call a general election on Sunday, with the vote on October 14, to focus on the weak economy and an opposition plan to impose a carbon tax, his office said on Friday.
The election will mark Canada's third national vote in four years and comes at a time when the economy is struggling to cope with the slowdown in the United States, the country's largest trading partner.
Harper's Conservatives won a minority government in January 2006 and polls indicate a vote now would result in another Conservative minority.
"We think it's about who do you want to have leading the country in uncertain economic times," said a top Harper aide.
Harper was supposed to wait until October 2009, the date set for the next election under a law brought in by the Conservatives.
But he says he wants an election now because Parliament has become dysfunctional, a move that has prompted charges he is making excuses to trigger a vote to suit his own ends.
"Stephen Harper wants to rush into an election before Canadians can realize how little he has done to prepare our country to deal with the slowdown of the economy," said Stephane Dion, leader of the opposition Liberal Party.
Economic growth so far this year has been anemic and the crucial manufacturing sector -- focused largely Eastern Canada where Harper needs to pick up votes -- is struggling.
The aide said Harper would not promise major tax cuts. He will vow to keep the budget in surplus while cracking down on crime and boosting the military.
The Conservatives will also attack the Liberals' carbon tax proposal, which is designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions while remaining revenue neutral by way of income tax cuts and assistance for the poor.
"This guy (Dion) could bumble his way into the big chair and Canadians could end up with a carbon tax ... that's not likely to go away," the Harper aide told reporters.
The Conservatives regularly mock the Liberal leader, a former academic from French-speaking Canada who sometimes has trouble making himself understood in English.
"To get the message across you have to have someone that people are willing to listen to and this is the big question -- will the Liberals have that person?" said Pierre Martin, a political scientist at the University of Montreal.
Dion, an outsider, surprisingly won the Liberal leadership race in late 2006 and has little support among legislators.
Many Conservatives -- and some Liberals -- agree Dion could be a major liability for his party.
Yet despite their many advantages, the Conservatives have not managed to build a solid, lasting lead in opinion polls over the Liberals during their time in power.
They have rarely managed to record more than 36 percent of public support, short of the 40 percent needed for a majority under the first-past-the-post electoral system.
"I haven't seen anything to suggest that there would be a significant change in the current political environment," said pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research.
Part of the reason is continuing voter uncertainty about Harper, seen as a cold, aloof and rather wooden figure who opponents say is harboring an extremist agenda.
"We need to win against the most right-wing prime minister in the history of our country ... Stephen Harper wants to give George W. Bush a third term in Ottawa," Dion said this week.
The Conservatives, who point to their record as evidence this charge is nonsense, are very strong in rural areas and in their main power base of Western Canada.
Yet they have made no headway at all in Canada's three main cities -- Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Only one prime minister -- Liberal Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s -- has won two successive minority governments.
Reporting by David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson