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Stephen Harper speaks at a rally in Fredericton, N.B., on April 20, 2011. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Stephen Harper speaks at a rally in Fredericton, N.B., on April 20, 2011. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Stephen Harper wages late-stage battle for Atlantic Canada Add to ...

Stephen Harper is making a late-game push for votes in Atlantic Canada, one of the regions he believes could hold the key to securing a majority government.

But Mr. Harper faces a real challenge in this foray - convincing Atlantic Canadians he's got their best interests at heart.

It's a region that's been cool to him in the past. Mr. Harper was shut out of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2008, and he's still fighting lingering resentment about his comments as Canadian Alliance leader in 2002, when he said a "a culture of defeat" holds back Atlantic Canada.

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Still, there are reasons to believe Atlantic Canadians might be more sympathetic this time.

The Conservatives, who held only one-third of the region's seats before dissolution, have worked hard since Week 1 of the campaign to court disaffected Atlantic Canadians, starting with a promise to co-sign a $4.2-billion loan for a power project that would benefit both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

As the campaign enters its final stretch, the race is boiling down to a handful of key regional battles, including B.C.'s Lower Mainland, Southern Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

Indeed, in this campaign of inches, both Mr. Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff have tracked each other closely across Canada recently. They toured British Columbia at the same time, followed each other up North and both converged on Atlantic Canada on Wednesday.

Mr. Harper is betting his pitch for a majority - to bolster economic stability - will resonate with a province such as New Brunswick, where government finances are in tatters.

For New Brunswickers, with a struggling economy and political fatigue from bitter fights over hydro that unseated a Liberal government last fall, the Tory message is simple: Give us a majority and Ottawa will leave you alone.

"We Conservatives didn't want this election, the country didn't want this election, the economy doesn't need this election," Mr. Harper told a rally of more than 700 supporters in Fredericton on Wednesday night.

The solution to prevent "a fifth election" after another unstable minority Parliament is "a strong, stable, national, majority Conservative government," he said.

Everywhere in the region, Conservatives trumpet their opposition to the long-gun registry, much despised in rural ridings. Elsewhere the message is more tailored: in Newfoundland, with promises of federal loan guarantees to help lay the transmission line for the proposed Lower Churchill hydro development.

There are at least six seats in play from New Brunswick to Newfoundland.

Mr. Harper began his visit to the region Wednesday with a stop in the northwest New Brunswick riding of Madawaska-Restigouche. Here, former Mulroney-era cabinet minister Bernard Valcourt is attempting a political comeback under the Tory banner, trying to unseat a Liberal.

"I would never count out somebody like Bernie Valcourt. He's charismatic and he's still a big presence in that riding," said Don Desserud, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.

Later, the Conservative Leader stopped in Fredericton, where the Tories hope to fend off a Liberal challenger, before heading to Newfoundland and Labrador for a Thursday rally in the riding of Avalon, a seat for which Mr. Harper has high hopes.

The Tory Leader will then head to the Cape Breton riding of Sydney-Victoria, where the Conservatives are trying to topple incumbent Liberal Mark Eyking.

Mr. Ignatieff, for his part, made a Wednesday campaign stop in Saint John, where the Liberals covet a local seat, before heading to the southwestern Nova Scotia riding of West Nova. Here, the Liberals hope that former Grit MP Robert Thibault can wrest back a bellwether riding.

At this point in the 41st election campaign, with many seats apparently locked up by one party or another, the national leaders' campaigns are increasingly focusing on a few dozen key ridings they feel they either need to defend or have a good shot of winning.

In Atlantic Canada, Mr. Harper is starting from a low base, holding only one-third of the region's 32 seats. Even picking up three or four seats would represent a proportionate gain for the Tories.

If Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have forgiven Conservatives for the equalization funding fight with now-retired premier Danny Williams that banished the party from the Rock in 2008, then three of the province's seven seats might switch from the Liberals and NDP to the Tories: Avalon, St. John's East and St. John's South-Mount Pearl.

Newfoundland Premier Kathy Dunderdale is certainly expecting good returns for Mr. Harper. In late March, she predicted the Tory campaign pledge to help her province borrow billions of dollars for the Lower Churchill Falls hydro project would reap rewards.

"I would say they have more than a good chance of bringing home a number of seats," Ms. Dunderdale said March 31.





Three closely fought ridings in Atlantic Canada

Madawaska-Restigouche, N.B.: Bernard Valcourt, a former Mulroney-era cabinet minister is trying to make a comeback here with the Conservatives. The northwest New Brunswick seat has gone Liberal since 2000 and the Grits won by more than 4,800 votes last time. Mr. Valcourt is not running for exactly same seat as he did in the 1980s because riding boundaries have since been redrawn. "Whether he still has the same cachet there regardless of the riding changes is the big question," said Don Desserud, political scientist with the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. He said he wouldn't count out Mr. Valcourt.

West Nova, N.S.: This southwest Nova Scotia riding has see-sawed between the Liberals and Conservative parties. Conservative Greg Kerr defeated Liberal Robert Thibault in 2008 and now Mr. Thibault is fighting to retake the seat. "West Nova is a bellwether. Always has been," St. Francis Xavier University political scientist James Bickerton said. "If there's a little bit of momentum one way or the other, that party's candidate will take the riding."

The election will determine whether voter anger at the provincial NDP government drives some New Democrat supporters to vote Liberal instead, helping Mr. Thibault. The Dexter government's decision to stop subsidizing a high-speed ferry between Yarmouth, N.S. and Maine has angered area residents.

Avalon, N.L.: The Tories are hoping to take back this sprawling riding that they lost in 2008. They're running the same candidate, Fabian Manning, who served as MP before the riding went Liberal again. Stephen Harper appointed Mr. Manning to the Senate after his 2008 defeat, a post he recently resigned to contest the 2011 vote. In 2008 the Conservatives were shut out of Newfoundland and Labrador after then-premier Danny Williams campaigned against them - a byproduct of a feud with Mr. Harper over how much equalization cash his province should receive.

- Steven Chase

 

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