TROIS RIVIERES, Quebec (Reuters) - Vital Rioux might abandon the Quebec separatists in next month's federal election and become one of tens of thousands of Quebecers who will vote for the ruling Conservatives this time.
Rioux voted for the separatist Bloc Quebecois in the 2006 election, when the party won 51 of Quebec's 75 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons. But that could change.
"They've done a good job but maybe it's time to have somebody stronger," Rioux said of the Bloc, pausing next to his car after shopping at the local Canadian Tire store.
The Bloc was founded in 1990 to work toward independence for French-speaking Quebec. But with that goal now seen as an unlikely dream, opinion polls point to a shrinking Bloc vote in the October 14 election as Rioux and others wonder if it is better to have a member of Parliament in government than one in opposition.
The Conservatives held only a minority of seats in the outgoing Parliament, but likely gains in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia should translate into a substantially stronger minority or even a majority.
Most analysts say they could add 5 or 10 seats to the 11 Quebec seats they now hold, but they are competitive in so many districts that they could pick up as many as 25 more.
The Bloc has spent much of this election campaign justifying its existence, with slogans that scream: "Present! Pour le Quebec" -- "There for Quebec!" -- without explaining just what the party is there for.
"The Bloc has lost its usefulness," commented Nabil Abdili, who runs a small store on one of Trois Rivieres' main streets.
Abdili, who emigrated to Quebec from Tunisia, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper had cut much of the ground from under the Bloc when he got the Canadian Parliament to recognize the Quebec "nation", a largely symbolic act that many Quebecers appreciated.
Trois Rivieres, a historic working-class town on the St. Lawrence River, has gone Bloc in each of the five elections since 1988 when it voted Progressive Conservative.
In 2006 the Bloc's Paule Brunelle won 46 percent of the vote, her Conservative rival taking 32 percent.
It looks like a comfortable majority, but the Bloc is polling 8-10 points below its province-wide vote in 2006, and the Conservatives are up by 5-10 points in many surveys.
"I don't think we can talk yet about a (Conservative) wave," Leger Marketing pollster Christian Bourque said. But he noted steady movement in the party's direction, with the Conservatives neck and neck with the Bloc in the 55 to 60 seats outside Montreal, Quebec's largest city.
"It's not a matter of considering the sovereignty movement dead. It's in a deep sleep, dormant, hibernating," he said.
Outside a Trois Rivieres paper mill, Conservative Claude Durand, president of the town's chamber of commerce, greets workers as they arrive and leave. Most say a polite hello, some say quietly she has their vote, while others demur.
"Your ideology is far from mine," one told her, citing the Conservatives' support for Canada's military mission in Afghanistan and their intention to get tougher on youth who commit violent crimes.
The Bloc, led by former Communist and union negotiator Gilles Duceppe, has positioned itself well to the left of the Conservatives on these and other issues, drawing voters like that paper mill worker.
But that left-wing line goes down best in Montreal and Bourque said Duceppe may have positioned himself to the left of many traditional backers, particularly in rural areas. And if separatism is not the main issue, this could hurt him. "A lot of the Bloc electorate is actually on the right," he said.
Another loser in the province seem to be the once-mighty Liberals, whose electoral machine is a pale shadow of what it was in the days when it was the Liberals, not the Conservatives, who gave the Bloc a run for its money.
They win around 20 percent of Quebec votes in most opinion polls and are unlikely to get many more than the 11 seats they hold at present. In 2000 they took 36.
La Presse columnist Andre Pratte agreed the Bloc had influenced the debate in Ottawa, the Canadian capital. But Quebec now had to decide if it wanted backseat drivers or decision-makers -- "people who are not just 'there for Quebec' but who act for Quebec and for Canada."
Editing by Janet Guttsman