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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's opposition Liberals have taken a slight lead over the ruling Conservatives in an opinion poll released on Friday, but both parties are well short of the level needed to form a majority government.
The Nanos Research survey put the Liberals at 33 percent and the Conservatives at 31 percent.
Under Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system, a party needs 40 percent of the vote to stand a chance of winning a majority of the 308 seats in Parliament -- the Conservatives won a minority government in January 2006 with 36 percent of the vote and have 126 seats in Parliament.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he wants to govern until the next scheduled election date of October 2009, but some party strategists want an election earlier to take advantage of a still-strong economy and what they say is the weak leadership of Liberal leader Stephane Dion.
Parliament faces three confidence votes between now and the end of March, and Dion says he is ready to go to the polls.
"Calling an election is fraught with risks for them both," pollster Nik Nanos wrote in a commentary. He said the survey showed that repeated efforts by the Conservatives to portray Dion as ineffectual had had no effect.
"The reality is that the Tories are not fighting Dion ... they are fighting the Liberal brand," he said.
Nanos Research predicted the result of the January 2006 election to within 0.1 percentage points for the top three parties.
The firm's poll of 1,002 Canadians was conducted between February 2 and 4 and is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Janet Guttsman