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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks during the party's winter caucus retreat in Ottawa on Jan. 25, 2011. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks during the party's winter caucus retreat in Ottawa on Jan. 25, 2011. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ignatieff's challenge: play the hero and win back women Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff's Liberals are seven points behind Stephen Harper's Conservatives according to internal polling that also shows only 15 per cent of Canadians are even paying attention to federal politics.

The new data was presented to the Liberal Leader, his MPs, senators and candidates at their winter caucus retreat Tuesday afternoon by Michael Marzolini. It comes amid overheated speculation of a spring election - but the party pollster made no prediction as to when that might occur.

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Mr. Marzolini revealed his horserace numbers, showing the Tories at 35 per cent support compared to 28 per cent for the Liberals, 19 per cent for the NDP, 10 per cent for the Bloc Québécois and 8 per cent for the Green Party.

The numbers haven't changed much since Mr. Marzolini, who runs the national polling firm Pollara, made his last presentation to the Liberal caucus in August. At that time, he had the Tories at 35 per cent - a drop of three points since the 2008 election - compared to 29 per cent for the Liberals, which he said left them competitive with the Tories whenever an election comes.

"Even though we are seven points behind, the crux was the more people get to know Michael they are actually starting to like him," a caucus insider told The Globe.

Whenever the election begins there is an opportunity for the Liberals to try to engage the 85 per cent of voters who are not yet paying attention to federal issues. But doesn't that same opportunity exist for the other parties as well?

The road ahead

Mr. Marzolini noted there were challenges for the party, especially among female voters. It seems women are increasingly going over to the Tories - a loss for the Liberals, who had traditionally counted on the support of female voters. The caucus source said "there is a great window there" for Mr. Ignatieff to try to win back that support with policies attractive to female voters.

The economy and health care are the No. 1 and No. 2 issue for Canadians, Mr. Marzolini told caucus. As a result, he described the Liberal family-care plan as having "huge resonance" with voters.

In addition, Mr. Marzolini noted that the "negative Conservative" issues are their efforts at trying to abolish the long-gun registry and their deal to spend $16-billion to purchase 65 new stealth fighter jets. However, the caucus source said the pollster warned Liberals to avoid attacking the Conservatives over spending hundreds of millions of dollars to stimulate the economy, its push for minimum sentences for certain crimes - and to make no mention of raising the GST back to six or seven per cent.

Heroes and villains

Mr. Marzolini has a theory as to why so few Canadians are paying attention to MP antics. "If Canadian politics was a TV show it would fail," he said. "There is almost no plot development, the pace is too slow to hold interest, everybody yells at everybody else and treats them badly, the audience is polarized on who is the hero and who is the villain, and the only heroine is married to Rahim Jaffer."

Mr. Jaffer's wife, Independent MP Helena Guergis, left her cabinet post and was kicked out the Conservative caucus as a result of allegations of unregistered lobbying against her husband. The pair have been cleared of any wrongdoing by the RCMP and Ms. Guergis has since given birth to their first child and is vowing to run again.

Beyond Liberal-land

As Mr. Ignatieff's team wraps up its retreat Wednesday, NDP Jack Layton takes on the issue of Senate reform in a morning keynote address to the Canadian Study of Parliament Group. Some senators are expected to be there, hopefully taking notes.

"Essentially Layton will be highlighting the PM's real record on the Senate and challenging him to finally live up to his words on making Senate more accountable," an NDP official said.

Conservative ministers and MPs, meanwhile, are fanning out across the country to defend their plans to cut corporate taxes - or as they put it, support " job creators."

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