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Conservative leader and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he boards his campaign plane with his wife Laureen in Ottawa April 3, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election May 2. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Conservative leader and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he boards his campaign plane with his wife Laureen in Ottawa April 3, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election May 2. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Music to Tory ears: Economy top of mind among voters Add to ...

As Conservative fortunes rise, so too does the issue with which Stephen Harper is most closely associated: jobs and the economy.

The Nanos daily tracking poll has shown the issue steadily increasing in importance among voters over the past three weeks. Twenty-three per cent of voters considered it the most important issue in this election as of Sunday, essentially tying it with the number-one issue, health care. In mid-March, the jobs-economy number was 18 per cent.

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Political analysts tend to dismiss health care as a factor in voter intentions. While it is almost always the most important issue on people's minds, no party clearly has succeeded in being identified as the one best able to bring down spiralling costs while reversing deteriorating service.

Since the 1990s, Canadians have despaired over any party being able to cure the ills of the health service, which leaves jobs and the economy as the number-one issue to be exploited.

The Nanos poll consistently finds other major issues - the environment, education and high taxes - barely registering.

Whether justified or not, polls consistently show that Mr. Harper is the leader voters are more likely to trust with managing the economy, making it no coincidence that the Conservative Leader pounds this issue almost to the exclusion of all others.

"Although the campaign was triggered by the defeat of the government on a contempt-of-Parliament motion, as focus on the economy increases, so does the advantage for the Harper Conservatives." Mr. Nanos observed.

The Tories' refusal to implement most of their new election promises until after the budget is balanced could be seen in that context as an effort to highlight their fiscal prudence in comparison with the other parties, he added.

Meanwhile, Mr. Harper's leadership index - a compendium of voter responses to questions about which leader is most competent, has the best vision for the country and can best be trusted - continues to dominate the other national leaders. His score as of April 3 was 102, while NDP Leader Jack Layton (with a score of 57) and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff (at 44) continued to battle for second place.

Combining Mr. Harper's high leadership-index score with the rising priority of jobs and the economy as the number-one issues in voters' minds helps to explain why, despite a plethora of scandals and controversies in recent weeks, the Conservatives continue to lead in the polls - with the latest Nanos numbers showing the Conservatives having broken the key barrier of 40 per-cent-support for three days running. April 3 had them at 42 per cent, compared to 28 per cent for the Liberals and 16 per cent for the NDP.

Individual results from day to day matter far less in daily tracking polls than trends over time. Those trends show modestly increasing support for the Conservatives, with the Liberals and the NDP searching for a wave to catch.

But there's an ocean of a campaign still to come.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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