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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadians voted on Tuesday in an election likely to give a renewed mandate to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the first Western leader to face the electorate since the financial market meltdown.
Since the financial crisis erupted, the focus of the 37-day campaign has narrowed to who would be the best manager in increasingly troubled economic times.
Polls showed enough voters sticking with Harper, although his support came off the highs it reached a few weeks ago. The election was expected to produce Canada's third minority government in four years.
The last poll of the campaign, by Ekos, projected the Conservatives would boost their seat count in Parliament at the expense of the main opposition Liberal Party, but would still be almost 20 seats short of the 155 needed for a majority.
Harper offered only modest tax breaks and spending initiatives, arguing a steady hand would get Canada through the turbulence that has hit world markets.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion, a bookish francophone who speaks hesitatingly in English, found it difficult at a time of relatively high energy prices to sell his plan for a new carbon tax to fight climate change, accompanied by income tax cuts and subsidies for the poor.
He started to cut into Harper's lead as he charged the prime minister, a former economist who is also fairly wooden, was not doing enough to prevent financial contagion from spreading into Canada.
But the Conservative lead over the Liberals widened again in parallel with specific action taken to improve Canadian bank liquidity, and analysts said the market rebound this week would make voters more optimistic.
In Ottawa, boiler technician Murray Mellan still remembered a Liberal advertising spending scandal that contributed to the party's defeat in 2006, and he voted for the Conservatives.
"I think they're on the right track -- more than the Liberals and the squandering that went on," he said outside the church where he voted.
Retired teacher Mike Carroll voted Liberal, but not because of the carbon tax or Dion but because he opposed Harper: "I think he's too arrogant and too steadfast in his rulings."
One of Dion's problems is that he is competing with two other parties on the left nationally -- the New Democrats and the Greens -- and a fourth party, the separatist Bloc Quebecois in the province of Quebec.
Each party made the pitch it was the best one to deny Harper a second term. Just as a split on the right guaranteed Liberal rule from 1993 to 2006, a split on the left now was now helping the Conservatives.
A Conservative majority looked within reach at times during the campaign, but besides questions on the economy, Harper lost major support in Quebec over cuts to arts funding and plans to give adult sentences to violent youth criminals.
The careers of both Harper and Dion could on be the line. Dion was elected Liberal leader in 2006 and if he loses, his party will have to decide whether to replace him. Harper said that whichever leader loses would likely be replaced.
He also said that even if he only got a second minority rather than a parliamentary majority, he would be in a stronger position than he had been 2 1/2 years into the minority mandate he won in the 2006 election.
Harper called the election in September on the grounds that Parliament was deadlocked and that the other parties were threatening to topple him this autumn.
Canada has staggered voting hours across the country, running for 12 hours in each province and ending at 7 p.m. EDT in Newfoundland, 7:30 p.m. in Maritime provinces, 9:30 p.m. EDT from Quebec through Alberta and 10 p.m. EDT in British Columbia.
Editing by Peter Galloway and Peter Cooney