- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

TORONTO — Canada’s governing Liberal Party is scrambling to shore up voter support, faced with the growing prospect it could be defeated by the country’s newly united right wing.

Two polls released this week put Liberal support at 34 or 35 percent, while the Conservatives have 30 percent support leading up to the June 28 vote.

Analysts say the news gives both parties a shot at forming a minority government, but can only help the Conservatives gain momentum on the campaign trail.

“The Liberals are in the process of crashing,” said Darrell Bricker, president of the polling firm Ipsos-Reid, adding that they are caught in a “perfect storm” in the province of Ontario.

There, the provincial Liberal government raised taxes after promising not to before it was elected in October. Voters are bitter at the Liberals for going back on their word.

Faced with the crumbling support across the country, Prime Minister Paul Martin has publicly conceded he may be defeated. He says it’s clear Canadians are angry with his party, which has been in power since 1993.

The Liberals are embroiled in an advertising and sponsorship scandal that saw government-friendly companies receive $100 million for little or no work. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has laid criminal charges in the case.

“In the last 10 years, there have been incidents that have caused concern and dismay among Canadians,” Mr. Martin said.

“Certainly, as the leader of the party and the prime minister of Canada, I take responsibility,” he said. “The buck stops here.”

Two prominent Liberal Cabinet ministers, meanwhile, verbally confronted Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper during separate campaign appearances. The encounters turned into unseemly shouting matches involving supporters of both parties.

“I guess they were sick of being yelled at on the doorstep,” Mr. Harper joked, calling the move a sign of desperation in the Liberal camp. Later, Conservative organizers called the ministers “stalkers” who put on a “silly and demeaning display.”

Conservatives are heartened to see the Liberals’ woes so soon after their own troubled times. The party was formed last December in a merger of two right-of-center parties — the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance.

In past elections, the conservative vote has been split between the two parties, helping to lift the Liberals to victory.

Two other major parties are also fielding candidates in the election.

The socialist New Democratic Party is more popular than ever under new leader Jack Layton, but is not expected to form a government. The separatist Bloc Quebecois, meanwhile, is not running any candidates outside Quebec.

Either party could end up playing king-maker and helping a minority government to stay in power.

The Bloc says it would cooperate with the Conservatives if they win, but only to help better Quebec and prepare for a third independence referendum.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper says his party would work with the separatists only on a case-by-case basis.

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