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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives were likely to retain power in Tuesday's election, has portrayed himself as best suited to lead the country as stock markets melted down.
"The number one job of the next prime minister of Canada is to protect this country's economy -- our earnings, savings, and jobs, at a time of global economic uncertainty," he told supporters on Monday.
During the campaign he stressed the need for lower taxes and lower inflation as well as balanced budgets. He also promised to crack down on crime.
Polls indicate Harper will keep his job, continuing a career in which he reaped major benefits by uniting the country's two fractious right wing parties in 2003.
Harper, a cold figure who opponents charge is hiding an extreme agenda, won a minority government in January 2006 and since then has tried to nudge the country more to the right.
The 49-year-old economist and policy wonk is instinctively uncomfortable with Canada's generous welfare state and industrial subsidies. But he has grown to accept them at least for now as he broadens his political base.
"I think the Canadian public has become more conservative ... (but) I don't want to say the Canadian public is overwhelmingly conservative or that it is necessarily as conservative as everybody in our party," he told supporters.
"Our party has to make sure that it continues to govern in the interests of the broad majority ... That means not only that we want to pull Canadians to conservatism but Conservatives also have to move toward Canadians."
That said, he is regularly forced to deny accusations he wants to criminalize abortion and overturn laws allowing gay marriage. He also dismisses the charge that he is running a one-man government where only his decision counts.
He said prime ministers were accused of either being too heavy handed or not being in control. "If I had to choose between those two things I'd rather be accused of being in control than not in control," he said.
Although Harper is far removed from the image of a cheerful politician happy to shake hands, he is a skilled tactician.
He comes from the western province of Alberta, which long felt itself to be excluded from Ottawa, and first rose to prominence in the 1990s as a legislator for the Reform Party, which campaigned under the slogan "The West wants in".
He quickly became frustrated and returned to Alberta, where he urged that the province erect a firewall to prevent interference from the federal government.
Yet he was soon back on the national stage, winning the leadership of the Canadian Alliance -- the successor to Reform -- in 2002 and then pushing through a merger with the smaller Progressive Conservatives to form the new Conservative Party.
At the time, in late 2003, the ruling Liberals had been in power a decade and looked invincible. A few months later the party was rocked by a patronage scandal and called an election for June 2004. They hung on to power but lost in 2006.
Harper, who as opposition leader in 2003 made clear his support for the U.S. war in Iraq, has had a relatively easy time in power and managed to neutralize most problems.
He is a strong supporter of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan and on several occasions promised the country would "not cut and run". Yet faced with increasing opposition as the number of Canadian deaths grew, he brokered a compromise whereby all the troops will be withdrawn in 2011.
Harper distrusts what he sees as often biased and lazy journalists and his relations with the press are poor.
He told reporters that when he goes into a classroom, a child will ask the best thing about being prime minister.
"I always say 'Running the government' ... You always forget the obvious," he said.
Stephen Joseph Harper was born on April 30, 1959. He is married and has two young children.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by David Storey