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Canadians don't share Harper's zest for fighter jets, debt reduction, poll shows

The great majority of Canadians do not want the federal government to purchase new fighter jets, even though Prime Minister Stephen Harper is bound and determined to do just that. Nor is the Conservative lead on economic issues all that robust.

These findings from a new Nanos poll for The Globe and Mail and CTV will put wind in the sails of opposition leaders during what appear to be the final days before a spring election campaign.

The data show that, while the Conservatives remain the favoured party of more Canadians than any other, that lead is "tentative" rather than solid and growing, concludes pollster Nik Nanos.

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Sixty-eight per cent of Canadians agreed that "now is not a good time" to proceed with the $16-billion purchase of the F-35 fighter aircraft to replace the aging fleet of CF-18 fighters, four of which were in action over Libya on Monday as part of a United Nations-sanctioned effort to contain strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Even a majority (56 per cent) of voters who identified themselves as Conservative supporters oppose the acquisition. And three out of four undecided voters are opposed.

Only 27 per cent of those surveyed thought the federal government should "purchase now to prepare for the future."

Sticking with the F-35s "is not necessarily a way to grow voter support," Mr. Nanos concluded, in what might be a bit of an understatement.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has vowed to cancel the contract and hold an open competition for a replacement jet, which the Conservatives maintain would leave Canada without fighter capability when the CF-18s are retired at the end of the decade.

As opposition politicians ponder Tuesday's Conservative budget and a committee report that holds the Harper government in contempt of Parliament, the Nanos poll offers further disquieting news for the Conservatives.

While 30 per cent of Canadians pick the Conservatives as the party they "trust the most in terms of economic policy," Mr. Ignatieff's Liberals poll a surprisingly robust second, at 21 per cent, while 16 per cent of Canadians would rather see NDP Leader Jack Layton's hand on the economic helm.

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Nor do most Canadians share the Conservatives' determination to eliminate the deficit and return to reducing government debt. Only 4 per cent of respondents cited deficits and debt as their top concern, compared with 29 per cent who believe health care should be the top national priority. Eighteen per cent cited jobs and the economy as the top concern. Education and the environment also trumped deficits and debts as key priorities.

By opposing the acquisition of the F-35s, while emphasizing middle-class concerns over health care, child care and home care, Mr. Ignatieff hopes to tap the same issues identified in Mr. Nanos's poll, while by flaying the Conservatives over conflict-of-interest and abuse-of-power allegations, the Liberals aim to undermine trust in Mr. Harper's leadership.

One senior Liberal official boiled it down to portraying the Conservatives as "out of touch, out of control."

In his favour, Mr. Harper's determination to proceed with the fighter purchase shows that there are some things that matter to him more than votes. His lead over Mr. Ignatieff on economic issues, while not as strong as expected, is still a lead.

And, as previously reported, the Nanos poll continues to show the Conservatives substantially more popular, and their leader substantially more respected, than any other - something else for the opposition to ponder on the eve of a possible election.

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