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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The slide in the polls for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives has been so steep as voter worry over the state of the economy has heightened that the possibility of his losing the upcoming general election is now being raised.
The Conservatives have led in the polls throughout the short campaign for the October 14 election and are still ahead but the momentum moved against them this month as near panic struck stock markets and gloomy headlines dominated the news.
Political strategist Rick Anderson said Harper is being hit by perceptions he has failed to act to prevent credit-crisis contagion from damaging Canada.
"This nonengagement on his and the public's primary issue is hurting him badly, threatening not just that sought majority (in Parliament) but unless he gets on top of this, conceivably even reelection," Anderson said.
The Conservatives are now only three to seven percentage points ahead of the Liberals, an improvement from a rough tie before the election was called on September 7, but less than half the 10 to 15 points seen in the first half of the campaign.
Harper, who admitted on Tuesday to not being "emotionally expressive," maintains Canada's banks and households are in good shape, affected, but not paralyzed, by the crisis that has swallowed homes and banks in the United States and elsewhere.
His government has been in regular contact with the central bank, the banks and the regulatory agency that oversees the banks, and he said in a newspaper interview that technical steps could be taken if necessary to shore up the markets.
He had taken an early lead in the polls on the strength of his pitch that a steady hand was needed for uncertain economic times, but that was before markets started plunging.
"They're in a situation where they have to start changing people's minds again," former Liberal campaign official David Herle told CBC television on Monday night.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion and New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton have hammered Harper, criticizing him for being inactive at a time of crisis.
"Conservatives do nothing to prepare a country because they don't believe in the role of the government to help the people and to help the market economy," Dion said on Tuesday.
Feeling the heat, Harper said on Tuesday the government had foreseen trouble and had cut taxes, taken action on mortgages and strengthened the Bank of Canada's ability to act.
'Due to these actions, we are not in a position of having to bail out our financial sector," Harper said in a speech,
"So when some wonder in the wake of recent events why we haven't thrown together a new plan, the reply of course is that the plan on which we have acted is a plan. In fact the very reason we call it a plan is because action is planned before it is needed... This government is not going to panic."
A Nanos poll released on Tuesday put the Conservatives at 34 percent, the Liberals at 31 percent and the NDP at 18 percent, showing the tightest margin in weeks.
A Harris-Decima/Canadian Press poll had the Conservatives at 31 percent, 10 points below the high they had touched early in the campaign and 5 points less than they got in the January 2006 election, when they won a minority of seats in Parliament. The Liberals are at 26 percent and the NDP at 21 percent.
An Ekos survey released on Monday night put the Conservatives ahead of the Liberals 33 percent to 26 percent, with the NDP at 19 percent.
Nanos and Ekos covered Saturday through Monday while Harris-Decima covered Friday through Monday.
Ekos surveyed 2,314 decided voters, with a 2-point margin of error 19 times out of 20. Harris-Decima interviewed 1,251 people with a 2.8-point margin of error and Nanos covered 1,020 committed voters with a 3.1-point margin.
Editing by Peter Galloway