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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Hurt by a poor showing in special elections on Monday, Canada's opposition Liberal Party acknowledged on Tuesday it has a steep hill to climb to regain popular support.
The Liberals, the biggest opposition party and the most successful political party in Canadian history, came in third place in all four of Monday's elections, held to fill vacant seats in the federal Parliament.
The Liberals decided in September to try to bring down the minority Conservative government in Parliament and force a general election, but their dismal showing in Monday's by-elections, and an unexpected pickup in support for the Conservatives in the French-speaking province of Quebec, have prompted some soul-searching.
"The by-election results last night show that we have a lot of work ahead of us," said Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, a former Harvard don who shook up his inner circle this month in a bid to rebuild momentum.
"Our job in the months ahead is to earn the confidence and support of Canadians."
The governing party often loses ground in by-elections but the Conservatives added two seats on Monday -- including a surprise win in Quebec, where until recently they had been losing ground.
The Quebec win came at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois, which advocates independence for the province and retains a majority of the Quebec seats.
Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe said his party would dissect the results but said the loss may have been the result of voter unhappiness that the Bloc legislator who had held the seat had stepped down so soon after the October 2008 general election.
The Liberals had not been expected to win any of the by-elections but they had been expected to put in a stronger showing. They had not held any of the four seats before the Monday votes.
The results showed pressure on the centrist Liberals from smaller left-leaning New Democratic Party, which held on to one seat in British Columbia and came second in two of the other contests.
"One gold and two silver -- I'm happy with that," NDP spokesman Karl Belanger said.
Liberal support across Canada started falling in September when the party decided to try to trigger an election just a year after the last one, in the middle of a fragile economic recovery.
The Liberals have charged over the last two months that the government was mishandling vaccination plans for the H1N1 flu and was being unfair in its distribution of funds for economic stimulus projects.
"The results were a failure for Michael Ignatieff, and a repudiation of his strategy of playing politics with H1N1," said Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The Liberals have said they will no longer move motions of non-confidence in the government in Parliament but have avoided answering whether they will still always vote against the Conservatives when confidence tests arise, such as parliamentary votes on budgetary matters.
Editing by Peter Galloway