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RICHMOND, British Columbia (Reuters) - The Conservatives appeared on Monday to be riding a wave of public support that could hand them their first majority government since 1988, but the party did all it could to minimize such expectations.
The Conservatives, who formed a minority government after the last election in 2006, entered the second day of the campaign for the October 14 vote with clear signs of being better organized and financed than their main opposition, the Liberals. Polls also showed voters strongly prefer Prime Minister Stephen Harper over Liberal leader Stephane Dion.
A Segma poll in Monday's La Presse put support for the Conservatives at 43 percent, which would translate into about 183 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons. The poll gave the Liberals 25 percent, or about 62 seats.
"To say that things are going badly for the Liberals is a euphemism. In fact, it smells like a rout," columnist Vincent Marissal wrote in La Presse.
The Conservatives had 127 seats in the old Parliament, while the Liberals had 95. The separatist Bloc Quebecois had 48 seats, the left-leaning New Democrats 30 seats, and the Greens one. There were three independents and four seats were vacant.
Polls two weeks ago had put the two leading parties neck and neck, some with the Liberals slightly ahead, others slightly behind, but in the last week a Conservative lead appeared to have opened up.
An Ekos survey released on Sunday, when Harper called the election, gave the Conservatives 37 percent and the Liberals 24 percent.
Harper has consistently said he expects the most likely result will be another minority government, and he downplayed polls indicating it would actually be a majority.
"I have never yet seen a poll that was right on election day," Harper said in Richmond, British Columbia on Monday.
Part of the concern the Conservatives have is that if they are clearly the front-runner then all the other parties train their sights on them.
Also, some voters are concerned about what they see as a right-wing Conservative agenda and about what the Conservatives would do if they did not have to rely on another party to stay in power.
The two top issues in the campaign so far are who would be best to lead the country through a period of economic weakness, and whether to adopt the Liberal plan to fight global warming with carbon taxes, offset partly with income tax cuts.
After weeks during which the Conservatives had the advertising field to themselves, the Liberals finally put out a series of ads on Sunday night touting the benefits of their carbon tax plan and moving forward to a green economy.
The Conservatives started off with soft ads showing Harper as a family man, but on Monday launched attack ads warning that Dion would raise taxes and prices.
Dion told a rally in Montreal on Monday he was not concerned about the polls and said the Liberals would triumph over Harper and his "laissez-faire, I-don't-care approach."
"His direction is a recession, his direction is a deficit, his direction is a mess that he's giving to this economy again," he said.
Canada's television networks announced on Monday the party leaders would have two nationally-televised debates, one in French on October 1, and another in English on October 2.
But the networks rejected a request from the Green Party to be included in the debates after three of the more established parties objected.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa; Editing by Peter Galloway.