OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sunday called an election for October 14 in a bid to strengthen his grip on power after 2-1/2 years in charge of a minority Conservative Party government.
Opinion polls in the past week show the Conservatives have such a large lead over the opposition Liberals that they could win a majority of the 308 seats in Parliament.
Harper, who predicted another Conservative minority, said Canada needed steady leadership at a time when the economy is suffering from the U.S. slowdown. He already has made clear he will not propose the kind of high-profile tax cuts his right-leaning government unveiled in the past.
The Liberals say that if elected they will bring in a revenue-neutral carbon tax designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Harper says the plan is a disaster.
"Between now and October 14, Canadians will choose a government to look out for their interests at a time of global economic trouble," Harper told a news conference after calling what will be Canada's third election in four years.
"They will choose between direction or uncertainty, between common sense or risky experiments, between steadiness and recklessness ... we are not promising miracles," he said, vowing to keep the budget in surplus.
He made the announcement after asking governor-general Michaelle Jean to dissolve Parliament.
Opponents, who accuse Harper of harboring an extreme right-wing agenda, say he is breaking an electoral law that fixed the date of the next election for October 2009.
Harper, whose government introduced the law, says he needs a vote now because "this Parliament is at its useful end and Canadians have to give somebody a mandate." He has had to rely on opposition parties to pass legislation and accuses them of delaying and watering down important measures.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion said no other Canadian election had provided voters with "such a stark choice between two visions" and accused Harper of mismanaging the economy.
"Since the Conservatives came to office, Canada has lost hundreds of thousands of good, well-paid jobs in our important manufacturing sector. They have put forward no plan to work on our challenges ... Canadians are left to fend for themselves," he told a news conference.
Canada has not had back-to-back Conservative governments since Brian Mulroney won a second term as prime minister in 1988. Harper won power in a late January 2006 election.
Harper played down talk of a majority, saying he predicted a tough, tight election that was likely to produce a minority.
An Ekos Internet/telephone hybrid survey released on Sunday put the Conservatives at 37 percent, the Liberals at 24 percent, the leftist New Democrats at 19 percent, the Greens at 10 percent and the separatist Bloc Quebecois at 6 percent.
Under Canada's electoral system, a party needs about 40 percent of the vote to win a majority. The Conservatives have 127 seats and the Liberals have 95.
Ekos said the poll did not so much reflect enthusiasm for Harper as "a very grim outlook" for the Liberals, who have ruled Canada longer than any other party.
The Conservatives say Dion does not have what it takes to be prime minister.
The Liberals are having trouble raising money and their organization in Dion's home province of Quebec -- which accounts for 75 seats -- is in some disarray. The election campaign is Dion's first and Harper's third.
Reporting by David Ljunggren