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Liberal Leader Paul Martin was forced to defend Stephen Harper's patriotism yesterday after campaigning with Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove, who used the opportunity to call the Conservative Leader a separatist.

"I have profound differences with Mr. Harper, but I have never questioned his patriotism," Mr. Martin told reporters later.

The Liberal Leader's extraordinary statement came as his party trails in the polls and he once again brought out the union leader -- who has endorsed Mr. Martin -- to help shore up support among NDP and Green Party supporters.

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At a campaign stop in Southwestern Ontario, Mr. Hargrove was asked by reporters whether he believes Quebeckers should vote for the separatist Bloc Québécois to stop Mr. Harper from winning.

"I would urge them to stop Harper in any way they can," he responded.

Then he went further, saying Mr. Harper's support for a less centralized federation will help the separatists tear the country apart.

He also said he does not see polls showing the Tories eating into the Bloc's support as good for Canada.

"Well, you know, they vote for one separatist or another, that's the way they're doing it," Mr. Hargrove said. "They see him as a separatist as well. To undermine federalism is about ensuring that there's nothing that ties and binds the country together. If you devolve all the powers to the provinces, what do you have left? What's the argument for Quebec to stay in Canada?"

Under repeated prodding, Mr. Hargrove suggested Mr. Harper is at least a quasi-separatist.

"His view of the country is a separatist view that doesn't have a strong federal government. A strong federal government is what makes Canada what it is," he said. "Putting in place a framework that will make it easier for the separatists to win in Quebec, surely that's pretty close to being a separatist."

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Mr. Hargrove issued a clarification later in the day, saying Mr. Harper is a federalist but is playing into the hands of separatists. Mr. Martin pointed to the clarification, saying that he does not doubt Mr. Harper's patriotism.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, who was campaigning in Toronto, said he was shocked by Mr. Hargrove's statement.

"I have never been one to either analyze or predict the behaviour of Buzz Hargrove but he's not part of my campaign, he's part of Mr. Martin's campaign and I think Mr. Martin and the Liberal Party should distance themselves from that type of advocacy," Mr. Harper said.

"I think that's bad for the country. I think it shows a partisanship that puts the interests of the Liberal Party ahead of the interests of the country, and that's one of the reasons the Liberal Party is in trouble in public opinion."

Mr. Hargrove's comments about Mr. Harper extended further. He called the National Citizens' Coalition, which Mr. Harper headed, a "secret society." He also was provocative about Alberta, saying Mr. Harper doesn't have a sense of Canada and its communities. "His sense is about Alberta, where the wealth in Alberta, everyone recognizes is much greater than it is anywhere in Canada. The principles that he's brought up with and believes in coming out of there don't sit well with the rest of Canada."

In a day of whistle stops from Strathroy, Ont., to Toronto, Mr. Martin sharpened his call for "progressive" voters -- Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and former Progressive Conservatives -- to unite behind him to stop a Conservative government that would renege on the Kyoto accord, kill the national daycare program and cut funding for cities.

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He told supporters in Milton that two-thirds of Ontarians want a progressive government, not the Tories, but they are divided three ways between Liberals, New Democrats and Greens.

"In order for us to do what we want in this country, the time has come for every progressive voter . . . to come with us. The fact is that [NDP Leader]Jack Layton can't do anything, cannot do anything to stop Stephen Harper. And in fact when I look at the way Jack Layton has behaved in this election campaign, political expediency before principle, I'm not even sure he wants to."

At a boisterous evening rally with about 350 supporters in Toronto's Trinity-Spadina riding, where Liberal Tony Ianno is in a close race with New Democrat Olivia Chow, Mr. Martin made his appeal to NDP supporters even more direct.

"If you mark your ballot for the NDP, then you may well end up making Stephen Harper the next prime minister of Canada," he told the crowd.

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