Stephen Harper embarks on his fourth national election campaign in seven years with a mission: to finally secure a majority government. And he plans to achieve that majority by convincing more women to vote Conservative.
Above anything else, this election is about Mr. Harper, a determined if extremely partisan leader whose personality earns the respect of some and the distrust of others.
All elections are referendums on the leader of the day. This election hinges on the question of whether Canadians want Mr. Harper to lead them for four more years in a majority government, less than that in a minority, or not at all.
Mr. Harper visits Governor-General David Johnston Saturday morning to tell him that his government was defeated by the combined opposition Friday, on a motion of contempt of Parliament that was also a question of confidence.
To earn a new mandate, the Conservatives are courting groups that they haven't often been able to count on. They have already made inroads among seniors and new Canadians.
But it is undecided women voters who will determine the outcome of this election. And the Tories have a shot.
While women have traditionally heavily supported Liberals over Conservatives - they preferred Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau by 20 percentage points over their opponents - through the past four elections that support has largely evaporated.
A Nanos Research poll conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV shows that decided women voters are no more likely to vote Liberal (21 per cent) than are men (22 per cent).
Sandy Grewal is exactly the sort of convert that the Tories have been courting. The 30-year-old bank employee shares her home with her young nieces and nephews in Brampton West, one of a crucial band of Toronto-area ridings that the Liberals hold and the Tories want.
She appreciates the Conservative emphasis on fighting crime and, as a South Asian, believes that the party is more in line with her family values.
Ms. Grewal was particularly impressed with how the Conservatives have managed the economy.
"I think the biggest concern for everyone is how we've recovered from the recession," she explained. "We were the last [country]in and the first [country]out."
But the Conservative Leader hasn't won women over yet. That same Nanos poll shows 27 per cent of them are undecided, as opposed to 17 per cent of men.
Undecided women are "the one group of voters who are up for grabs," pollster Nik Nanos said. "This is the group of voters who are likely to move around during the election and who, for all intents and purposes, will decide who wins and by what margin."
One of them is Latika Kothari, a 48-year-old homemaker and mother of two, who lives in the suburban riding of Mississauga-Brampton South.
Ms. Kothari, who came to Canada from India 12 years ago, said that the party that earns her vote will address her political priorities: the environment, and especially education.
"Education is very important to me," she said. "This generation will be tomorrow's leaders. That's the reason I came to Canada."
All four parties will spend the next five weeks driving home their core messages to voters. The part of the Tory message that emphasizes money for the military and for new prisons doesn't really resonate with most women, whose focus is on providing for their families.
That is why Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's budget, which will now become the party's election platform, made no mention of plans to acquire a new fleet of F-35 jets or to expanding and building new jails.
Instead, five of six faces on the cover of the budget document were women. (The sixth was a visible-minority male.)
And over and over that budget targeted women, especially those caring for the young and the infirm.
A tax credit for caregivers; relief for medical expenses; a tax credit for children enrolled in arts and crafts programs.
And since women look after their parents more than men, every budget measure that aimed at keeping seniors in their homes and active in their communities was also intended to appeal to women voters.
But the Liberals are hardly prepared to cede one of their core constituencies. Leader Michael Ignatieff has been rolling out policies for months that target the needs of women in families, including the equivalent of unemployment insurance for family members caring for an aging relative. And there will be other initiatives when the party unveils its election platform within the next week or so.
The NDP platform will focus on the needs of women struggling in lower-income families.
Janelle St. Omer, 28, has yet to choose between Mr. Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton. While concerned about the economy, Ms. St. Omer is turned off by the hard edge of the Conservatives and is more interested in preserving social services.
"The Liberal Party is the party I have the most affinity for," she acknowledged, "but Michael Ignatieff is not the leader I have an affinity for. From what I've seen there's just something lacking."
While women voters are not generally attracted to a conservative message, they do value strong and consistent leadership. More women voted for Mike Harris's strongly Conservative Ontario government in the 1990s than for other parties because they preferred his leadership to that of opponents perceived to be weaker.
Which leader has the strength of will and the message that will resonate with undecided women voters is what this campaign will decide.
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