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It's time for Stephen Harper to cash in.

With slightly more than two weeks to go before election day, the Conservative Leader heads into a pair of election debates Monday and Tuesday buoyed by a new poll that suggests Canadians, including Quebeckers, are listening hard to what he has to sell.

The survey by the Strategic Counsel puts Mr. Harper's party in the lead over the Liberals by two percentage points for the first time in this campaign and indicates he also has a huge lead, even in Quebec, when voters are asked who has the momentum going into the Jan. 23 election.

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"This is really interesting that this is occurring right on the eve of the debate," said Allan Gregg, chairman of the Strategic Counsel, which conducted the poll for The Globe and Mail and CTV News.

"If we are in the midst of change and anything significant happens in the debate -- even if Stephen Harper looks moderate, temperate and prime-ministerial -- you could see things change really fast."

Even in Quebec, the Tories are suddenly an option. Although the party continues to run third in the province after the Bloc Québécois, which is still substantially ahead, and the Liberals, 38 per cent of Quebeckers say the Tories have the most momentum heading into the election.

It's a signal, Mr. Gregg said yesterday, Quebeckers are primed to hear Mr. Harper's message and a good performance in the debates will be critical. "He's there to close the deal."

Conservatives have until now talked in hushed tones about the possibility of forming the next government. Too many remember what happened when Mr. Harper, in a similar leading position in 2004, mused aloud about the possibility of winning a majority.

But 18 months later, Tories are quietly confident that they won't blow it this time, thanks to a series of lessons learned and a newly jelled campaign team to which Mr. Harper has delegated more authority.

"He perhaps had a narrower base of advice last time," said Ken Hughes, a former Progressive Conservative MP from Alberta volunteering for the Tories in a riding south of Calgary.

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"But also, they were caught in the vice of no time to prepare and a lot of new people whose relationships weren't as open, experienced and tested."

One of the key changes, said one Ottawa official, is Mr. Harper's willingness to farm out at least some of the workload that he took upon himself in 2004.

Sources say, for example, it was a staff member whose close study of the 2004 Australian election resulted in the importing of certain tactics from Prime Minister John Howard's campaign.

The Australian Prime Minister surprised many by not only winning a fourth mandate, but increasing the number of seats for his party. Patrick Muttart, one of Mr. Harper's chief strategists, studied the victory closely and saw things in it that might apply to the Tories.

The result was the informal participation of Mr. Howard's federal party director, Brian Loughnane, in the Conservative campaign. While not a main player, insiders say Mr. Loughnane speaks regularly to campaign officials about strategy.

The Tories have also leaned on the Australians for help on how to attract swing voters, a group that Mr. Loughnane and Mr. Howard have had some success in winning over in the past.

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The Australian example led the Tories to aim tax cuts at targeted groups. A Conservative promise that would give tax breaks to apprentices purchasing tools was lifted directly from Mr. Howard's 2004 election campaign.

Sources also say that a few key changes at the top of the campaign structure have allowed Mr. Harper to cut back his involvement in certain tasks perhaps better left to others.

One of the chief complaints against him in 2004 revolved around his insistence on being his own campaign strategist, press secretary and senior adviser.

That has changed with a beefed-up staff on the road and the addition of a new chief of staff in Ian Brodie.

Mr. Brodie, a political scientist who studied at the University of Calgary, has become a key conduit between the campaign plane and the party war room in Ottawa.

In 2004, Mr. Harper communicated his ideas directly with the Ottawa staff, which colleagues said impaired his ability to concentrate on his most important job: that of campaign messenger.

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Unlike his predecessor, Phil Murphy, Mr. Brodie is seen to have more latitude in shaping campaign strategy and somewhat more independence from Mr. Harper.

He is also even-tempered, a trait some say has tended to calm the enthusiasms of an Ottawa operation that, in 2004, delivered an ill-timed missive suggesting Liberal Leader Paul Martin supported child pornography.

"The worst thing is to have the leader as his own tour director, his own director of communications, his own director of research," one source said. "So, I think there's been a refinement of the process."

Mr. Harper has also taken to travelling with a larger retinue that sometimes includes former Progressive Conservatives such as Senator Hugh Segal and Senator Marjory LeBreton.

Insiders say Mr. Harper listens closely to Mr. Segal, a former PC moderate who sources say has played the role of happy warrior, advising the Leader on communications and on projecting a positive image.

Ms. LeBreton, who was an aide to then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, has been credited with being a friendly influence on the media. Her presence also alerts reporters to the fact that the two-year-old party is mostly over its internal growing pains. Ms. LeBreton was a Progressive Conservative and had been a strong foe of the Canadian Alliance-PC merger that created the Conservative Party.

Other key recruits to the campaign include Guy Giorno, a former chief of staff to former Ontario premier Mike Harris.

"These are all adults who have the ability to calm things down," said an insider.

As for his old Calgary colleagues, Mr. Harper still relies on individuals such as his former political science professor at the University of Calgary, Tom Flanagan.

Mr. Flanagan is a member of a small inner circle that is entrusted with crucial information, such as the nightly tracking polls in Ontario and British Columbia.

Others include the party's pollster, Dimitri Pantazopoulos, campaign chair Doug Finley, Mr. Brodie and the party's advertiser, Perry Miele. Other key members of the team include Michael Coates, president of the Hill and Knowlton lobbying firm, and Mark Cameron, who writes many of Mr. Harper's speeches.

Mr. Flanagan was responsible for putting together a postmortem of the 2004 campaign, the results of which have played a key role in two critical decisions this campaign.

The first decision, which appears to have caught the Liberals flat-footed, was to move up Mr. Harper's daily policy announcement from midday in 2004 to first thing in the morning. The move has helped the Tories control the agenda, forcing the Liberals to respond to them rather than the other way around.

The second decision, still to play out, was to avoid getting blown away by a Liberal advertising campaign without a response. In 2004, the Harper team failed to pre-buy prime-time advertising slots for the end of the campaign and could only watch as Liberal advertising ran unopposed.

Insiders say that will not happen this time. If, for example, the Tories take fire over the next week or so, sources say the party has bought ad time in the Greater Toronto Area to capitalize on the situation.

It is a simple matter of doing homework, an insider said. "After the [2004]campaign, the Liberals were more concerned with high-fiving and patting themselves on the back for being political geniuses," the source said.

"We needed to find out what we had to do better."

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