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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Saturday that his opponents in the federal election were failing to recognize that the Canadian people have become politically more conservative.
In the past two decades, Harper said, Canada has undergone "a tremendous change" in that it has become generally accepted that balanced budgets, free trade and lower taxes are good things.
"One of the things that's surprising to me in this election is to see all of the other parties, including the Liberal Party, basically go to a pre-free trade, Cold War kind of approach to the economy," Harper said in New Brunswick. "This is not where the Canadian public is in this day and age."
He was speaking at the end of the first week of Canada's five-week campaign for the October 14 general election, one in which he has opened up a polling lead over the Liberals.
A Harris-Decima tracking poll released on Saturday put the Conservatives ahead of the Liberals 41 percent to 24 percent, Ipsos-Reid put the gap at 38 percent to 29 percent and a Nanos Research tracking poll at 38 percent to 30 percent.
Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion said Canadians still wanted a "progressive government," and that Harper was just admitting that he was personally more conservative than the general public.
"I want to ask him is how far more right wing is he than Canadians? What is his hidden agenda?" Dion told reporters in Richmond, British Columbia, echoing a line the Liberals used in the last election.
"I'm promoting the policies of the large center," Dion said.
Harper defeated the Liberals in January 2006, but failed to get a majority in Parliament and has had to rely on at least one opposition party to get budgets and bills passed.
Harper made clear on Saturday that he intended to try to position his party as more centrist.
"I think the Canadian public has become more conservative. At the same time, I don't want to say the Canadian public is overwhelmingly conservative or that it is necessarily as conservative as everybody in our party," he said.
"And that means that our party has to make sure that it continues to govern in the interests of the broad majority of the population. That means not only that we want to pull Canadians to conservatism but Conservatives also have to move towards Canadians if they want to continue governing the country."
One example of that sort of pragmatic approach has been his agreeing this year to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan in 2011 -- meeting opposition demands even though he had earlier not wanted to fix an end date.
The 17-point lead in the Harris-Decima poll, which covered 1,200 Canadians from September 9 to 12, was 2 points more than its survey released on Friday. It is considered accurate to within 2.9 points 19 times out of 20.
The 9-point Conservative lead in the Ipsos Reid poll compared with a 2-point lead in the company's previous survey two weeks ago. It called 1,000 people from September 9 to 11 and had a 3.1-point margin of error.
The 8-point lead shown by Nanos was 1 point larger than it registered on Friday. It surveyed 960 decided voters and had a 3.2-point margin of error.
Additional reporting by Allan Dowd; editing by Mohammad Zargham