- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

From combined dispatches

OTTAWA — Canada’s opposition Conservatives appeared to be on track to forming the next federal government yesterday, as party leaders battled it out in the third of four key debates that could cement who wins the vote Jan. 23.

A Strategic Counsel poll for the Globe and Mail newspaper showed the Conservatives with the support of 37 percent of voters, with the ruling Liberals trailing at 29 percent.

The poll showed that if an election were held now, the Liberals would be defeated after 12 years in office and replaced by a minority Conservative government.

Canada’s Prime Minister Paul Martin came out swinging in last night’s debate, hammering Conservative leader Stephen Harper on his plans to reverse homosexual “marriage” legislation passed by the Liberals in 2005 and warning that Conservatives would create a huge budget deficit.

“Mr. Harper has made a promise a day in this campaign. Many of these promises are tax breaks that will give more to those who have more. How will he pay for all of this?”

Mr. Harper, who lost the 2004 election to Mr. Martin, criticized the prime minister for three government scandals and for flying a flag of convenience on his Canada Steamship Lines to avoid paying higher Canadian taxes during his business career.

“We need a government that will be on the side of the people who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules,” Mr. Harper said.

Analysts said Prime Minister Martin needed to land a knockout punch to boost the fortunes of his Liberal Party, in power since 1993.

The Liberals started the campaign in late November with a five-point lead, but have lost ground amid repeated questions over scandals. Most recent polls show them trailing the Conservatives.

“This is huge,” the Globe and Mail quoted Strategic Counsel Chairman Allan Gregg as saying of the poll.

“This really does show … [the Conservatives] have slowly convinced the population that they are not kind of offside of the mainstream of Canada.”

Many observers credit the Conservatives’ rise on an uninspired and low-key Liberal campaign and a growing acceptance of leader Stephen Harper, despite Liberal attempts to portray Mr. Harper as a right-wing extremist who would undermine key Canadian social programs, such as universal health care.

Mr. Harper is promising tax cuts, increased spending on defense and child care, as well as a crackdown on serious crime.

Opposition parties brought down Mr. Martin’s government late in November over cash kickbacks to senior Liberal Party members from a government advertising program.

Other scandals have emerged since then, increasing voter perception of the Liberals as complacent and arrogant.

Following yesterday’s English-language debate, which included two candidates from smaller parties, a French debate will take place today.

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