Ontario gains propel Tories to double-digit lead in poll

The Canadian Press

New poll data indicates Stephen Harper's Conservatives are gaining strength across the country and hold a the kind of lead over the Liberals that suggests they won't have to make many compromises with the opposition on the upcoming budget.

"If I was looking at these numbers, he's got the whip hand," pollster Allan Gregg said.

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The Harris Decima survey conducted for The Canadian Press suggested the Tories have 37 per cent support, with 27 per cent support for the Liberals. The NDP have slipped to 14 per cent, with the Bloc and the Greens each at 10.

The two-week survey involved more than 3,000 people contacted between Feb. 3 and Feb. 13 as part of an omnibus phone poll and is considered accurate to within 1.8 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

"These are the best numbers we've seen for Stephen Harper and the Conservative since the afterglow of the 2008 election."

Mr. Gregg said the Conservatives seem to be gaining strength in Ontario, including the horseshoe of ridings around Toronto which could decide the next election.

"They've got a solid, 10-point lead in Ontario in our numbers and they have been competitive since the fall in Toronto."

There are other reasons for the Tory showing, including higher support among women. The Conservatives would perennially trail the Liberals among women voters until recently when the Prime Minister began to close the so-called gender gap.

"The gender gap is gone and that has always been a cushion that the Liberals could rely on."

The Conservatives have also been inundating television networks with ads attacking Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. Those ads are often running in front of hockey games and other highly rated programming in prime time.

In Quebec, where the Tories had been in the single-digits, they are tied with the Liberals at 19 per cent. The Bloc holds a commanding 40 per cent. The NDP is at 11 per cent and the Greens have eight.

Mr. Gregg said the Tories are also capitalizing on a slump in NDP support in British Columbia, where a provincial leadership race has the party in a tizzy.

The Conservatives hold a significant lead in Atlantic Canada and a commanding one on the Prairies.

A separate, one-week survey looked at leadership. It showed sharp contrasts between Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff.

The Prime Minister got favourable ratings from 46 per cent of those surveyed, with 43 per cent unfavourable. The Liberal Leader got a favourable nod from 25 per cent, with 51 per cent holding an unfavourable view.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe had the best leadership rating, with 53 per cent of those surveyed in Quebec giving him a favourable review and 30 per cent unfavourable.

NDP Leader Jack Layton had a 44-38 favourable-unfavourable score and Elizabeth May of the Green was 25-30.

Mr. Gregg said one key in the leadership numbers is that Conservatives hold a much harsher view of Mr. Ignatieff than Liberals hold for Mr. Harper.

"Michael Ignatieff is more of a polarizing figure in Canadian politics than Stephen Harper," Mr. Gregg said. "It's easier for Conservatives to mobilize their voters by attacking Ignatieff than it is for the Liberals to mobilize their voters by attacking Harper."

He said Tory attacks ads seem to have succeeded in portraying Mr. Ignatieff as a "pointy-headed, out-of-touch, effete urban snob."

The numbers don't necessarily presage a spring election, Mr. Gregg said, but they should buoy Mr. Harper.

"Harper is going to be significantly emboldened," he said. "I don't think he wants an election, because I don't think he likes campaigning."

But if the campaign does come, the Conservatives are in good shape.

The leadership survey was conducted Feb. 10-13. It polled just over 1,000 people and has a margin of error of 3.1 per cent, 19 times in 20.