Rivals in last bid to catch up to Harper

Fri Oct 3, 2008 11:17am EDT
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By Randall Palmer

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The last sprint to catch Prime Minister Stephen Harper began on Friday, with political leaders fanning out across Canada after debates in which no knock-out punches appeared to have been landed.

Harper, elected to a minority government in January 2006, has maintained a strong polling lead in the current campaign and time is running out ahead of the October 14 election.

Harper was the main focus of the attacks in Wednesday's and Thursday's debates, but he said afterwards that that actually gave him more air time as he was often given time to respond.

He also benefits from the fact that his four main party rivals are on the left or center-left, leaving the prospect of his getting a stronger mandate even if he wins only the 36 percent of the popular vote he won last time.

"Ganging four against one is a good way to win a debate; having a gang-of-four parties divide all the votes clustered to the left of the Conservatives is a better way to lose an election," Toronto Star columnist James Travers wrote.

A subtext to the race to become prime minister is the fierce dogfight between Liberal leader Stephane Dion, now head of Parliament's second largest party, and Jack Layton, leader of the fourth-largest, New Democratic Party.

The Liberals have usually governed Canada, and when they have not been in power they have always been in second place, but Layton says Dion abandoned his responsibilities in the past year by refusing to topple Harper's government.

"We are the ones who are going to replace Mr. Harper, and of course Mr. Dion had his decision to prop up Mr. Harper, and that is something he'll have to explain to people," Layton told reporters in Montreal early on Friday morning, barely nine hours after the end of the debates in Ottawa.   Continued...

<p>Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (L) shakes hands with Liberal Party Leader Stephane Dion as NDP Leader Jack Layton (2nd L) hugs Green Party Leader Elizabeth May following the English leaders' debate in Ottawa, October 2, 2008. REUTERS/Tom Hanson/Pool</p>