Friday, January 20, 2006

MONTREAL — Canada’s Conservatives, who look increasingly sure of winning national elections on Monday, say they are hoping for a fresh start in the nation’s frosty relations with the United States.

John Reynolds, official opposition house leader, said while trade disputes between Canada and the United States will remain, the tone of political discourse will change.

“We had a government that for 12 years in Canada has called [Americans] words like ‘coward’ and ‘stupid,’” said Mr. Reynolds, who co-chairs the Conservative elections campaign. “That would change. Our party is not filled with anti-American people like it is within the Liberal Party.”

Mr. Reynolds, who spoke to The Washington Times after a boisterous rally of Conservative sympathizers in a downtown Montreal hotel Wednesday, said Conservative leader Stephen Harper and President Bush should sit down and work out the trade problems.

“We’ve been friends and neighbors for a long, long time,” Mr. Reynolds said. “We are major trading partners in the world, we’ve got a lot to offer each other and we have to get that friendship back on track just like you’d have with your next-door neighbor.”

Mr. Reynolds said the first practical step in improving security cooperation between Canada and the United States would be to restart discussions about joining the anti-ballistic missile program.

“We’ve got to sit down and discuss this. There is a quid pro quo for everything,” he said.

But how far the Conservatives push their social, political and economic agenda will depend on whether they manage to gain a majority in Canada’s 308-seat House of Commons, or will have a minority government.

Recent polls suggest that Conservatives have a 12-point lead over the incumbent Liberals and have even made significant gains in French-speaking Quebec, the most socially liberal province of Canada. The latest poll by the Strategic Counsel made for the Globe and Mail newspaper and CTV shows that national support for the Conservatives has dropped to 37 percent from 41 percent just days ago, while the support for the Liberals has risen to 28 percent from 25 percent.

Unlike the March 2004 elections when the newly created Conservative Party was outsmarted and outgunned by the formidable Liberal election machine, Mr. Harper, 46, has run a nearly flawless campaign.

Many observers think that despite his relatively young age Mr. Harper is in the political fight of his life. Jan. 23 elections are the moment he has worked for all his life.

Mr. Harper started as a staffer and then a member of Parliament with the Progressive Conservatives, moving to the Western-based Reform, and then to the Canadian Alliance Party. As leader of the Canadian Alliance Party, he oversaw its merger with the Progressive Conservative Party to form the new Conservative Party of Canada in 2003.

Mr. Harper, a reserved former economist who is much more comfortable discussing policy than making fiery speeches at Conservative rallies, has slowly become more at ease in leadership.

He has campaigned on the promise of cleaning up government, cutting taxes, curbing government spending and strengthening the Canadian military.

On the foreign policy front Mr. Harper has promised to improve Canada’s relations with the United States, but also to take “a tougher stand on international trade disputes.”

Prime Minister Paul Martin, on the other hand, has run an uninspired campaign full of gaffes.

And his attack ads trying to paint Mr. Harper as a religious zealot with a hidden agenda, or as an American lapdog, have backfired.

One of the ads quoted from a Washington Times opinion piece by Patrick Basham where he claims that, “If elected, Mr. Harper will quickly become Mr. Bush’s new best friend internationally and the poster boy for his ideal foreign leader.”

Speaking to reporters Thursday Mr. Martin again went on attack.

“We’ve never seen a major political party with such a conservative agenda as this one, an agenda which has really been taken from the extreme right in the United States,” said Mr. Martin.

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