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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's ruling Conservative Party launched a series of ads attacking the opposition Liberals on Wednesday in a bid to recover lost ground in public support ahead of a possible election.
The Liberals have threatened to try to topple the minority government by mid-year, and while most analysts think that will not happen, the Conservatives decided they needed to cut into consistent leads the Liberals have scored in opinion polls.
If the Liberals decided to pull the plug on the government, reelected in October with a strengthened minority in Parliament, they would need the backing of the other two opposition parties, and such support is by no means certain.
The new television ads question the commitment to Canada of the popular new Liberal leader, former Harvard don Michael Ignatieff, who spent 34 years in the United States and Britain before returning to Canada to run for the Liberal leadership.
When Ignatieff took over informally as Liberal leader in December, a decision that was confirmed by the Liberal convention this month, he warned against partisan attacks on him.
At the time, the Conservatives had come close to being toppled and they refrained from negative ads. But they said on Wednesday the "free ride" was over.
"Mr. Ignatieff has had an extended honeymoon, but that honeymoon is over in terms of how the Conservative Party will be treating him," a senior Conservative, asking not to be identified, told reporters as he unveiled the ads.
"Michael Ignatieff. Just visiting," the ads proclaim. They quote him as having said while abroad that the only thing he missed about Canada was Algonquin Park, the vast provincial park in Ontario, and that he considered the United States his country and Britain his adopted country.
Ignatieff quickly denounced the ads and said he would not attack Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Conservative leader, personally.
"On a day when we've got record bankruptcies, we've got unemployment skyrocketing, all this government can think of doing is running attack ads on me. This is the old style of politics," he told reporters in Parliament.
The Conservatives said they were responding to Liberal attack ads that have run for months on YouTube, particularly those by someone identified as "theGritGirl".
Ignatieff said he had not authorized theGritGirl ads, but senior Liberal adviser Warren Kinsella was promoting them on his website on Wednesday afternoon and saying they were from a young Liberal.
The latest poll, released on Tuesday, put the Liberals ahead 35 percent to 30 percent. But the Conservatives are better organized and have a much larger financial war chest.
Editing by Frank McGurty