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Leader Michael Ignatieff pauses during a speech to members of the Ontario Young Liberals during their AGM in Toronto on Feb. 12, 2011. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Leader Michael Ignatieff pauses during a speech to members of the Ontario Young Liberals during their AGM in Toronto on Feb. 12, 2011. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tory attack ads pack a punch that leaves Liberals reeling Add to ...

This just in: attack ads work. I mean really work.

Stephen Harper's Conservatives have the support of 39.7 per cent of Canadians, while Michael Ignatieff's Liberals have dropped to 26.6 per cent, a 13-percentage-point gap, according to a new poll conducted for the Globe and Mail and CTV by Nanos Research.

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The news isn't all good for the Conservatives. Their support is stagnant or declining in Ontario, British Columbia and Atlantic Canada, areas where the party hopes to make gains in an election that could be called within four weeks. But the Liberal support is also stagnant or declining, often at a seriously lower level.

What may matter most is that after weeks of Conservative television attack ads warning voters that the once-itinerant Liberal Leader "didn't come back for you," the share of voters who approve of Mr. Ignatieff's leadership has slumped to 13.6 per cent, slightly behind "none of the above." NDP Leader Jack Layton's is more popular, with the approval of 14.3 per cent of voters, compared to Mr. Harper's comparatively robust 34.5 per cent.

"The negative attack ads launched by the Conservatives did their job," Nanos president Nik Nanos observed.

This doesn't portend disaster for the Liberals if an election is called this spring. The Conservatives had the field to themselves during their advertising campaign; once an election is under way, the ground will be more even.

But if an election had been held last week, it might well have resulted in a majority Conservative government.

LENGTHENING THE RUNWAY

The Conservatives were supposed to announce the March budget date weeks ago, but still there is no official word, though most people have circled March 22. John Duffy, a consultant who sometimes strategizes for the Liberal Party, believes the Tories decided to put off the date to give their attack-ad campaign time to work.

"The Conservatives gave themselves more runway in which to prepare for a campaign, through advertising" he believes. It worked so well that Mr. Duffy suspects the Tories might now be worried that they've peaked too soon.

JACK'S ALRIGHT

The Liberals freely admit that their goal is to defeat the Conservatives by siphoning support from the New Democrats. Mr. Ignatieff's position on corporate tax cuts, purchasing F-35 fighter jets and opposing tough-on-crime legislation is now virtually identical to that of Mr. Layton's.

It may be backfiring, Mr. Nanos believes. What little advertising the Liberals have conducted may reaffirm voters' support for the NDP, which has held to its views longer and firmer. Mr. Layton is more popular than Mr. Ignatieff among voters, and the latest Nanos poll has the party at 18.9 per cent, an uptick from the December Nanos poll.

MICHAEL'S NOT

The Nanos Leadership Index score, an amalgam of questions on trust, competence and vision, has Mr. Ignatieff at 36.9, down from 45.1 in December. Stephane Dion was at the same level during the 2008 coalition crisis, when he was at his nadir. This is slough of despond territory. In contrast, Stephen Harper scores 98.9, up from 84.9. That ad showing the Prime Minister alone in his office, working late into the night with a cheap pen, seems to have worked.

BUT DON'T THINK IT'S OVER

Mr. Nanos observes that the voters who responded to the poll tend to be those who follow politics closely, and that one in five voters remains undecided.

Mr. Duffy is encouraged by the coherent and consistent narrative the Liberals have developed under Mr. Ignatieff - the Tories waste money on big-business tax cuts, military toys and prisons, while undermining democracy - and he believes the campaign and fundraising machines are ready and able.

"At the level of willingness to wage war and ability to do so, the Liberals are in better shape than they have been for a long, long time," he believes.

As well, the furor surrounding Mr. Harper's refusal to fire International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda over a document-tampering scandal could be the prorogation protest of 2011. Or so the Liberals pray.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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