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Canadians warm to Harper over recess, poll suggests

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper boards his plane at the airport in Ottawa, Thursday September 6, 2012.


Stephen Harper has experienced a rebound in his personal popularity, a new poll suggests.

The long respite from the cut and thrust of politics, granted by the House of Commons summer break, has improved the Prime Minister's leadership qualities in the minds of many Canadians.

After a steep decline in the Nanos Leadership Index last spring when his Conservative government was facing daily attacks by the opposition, Mr. Harper has made a significant recovery and is now scoring nearly twice as high as his chief rival, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.

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The index measures Canadians beliefs about their federal political leaders' trustworthiness, competence and vision for Canada.

In the latest telephone survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults conducted between Sept. 4 and Sept. 9, Mr. Harper received a combined mark of 93.4. That is significantly ahead of the 72.7 he was given when Nanos Research conducted a similar poll in July. And it is well ahead of Mr. Mulcair who scored a 48.0 – a little more than a point ahead of his own July numbers.

"It is pretty clear from the polling that Stephen Harper's brand did take a hit last spring when he was fighting a number of fronts," said Nik Nanos, the president of the polling firm. The opposition hammered the government from March to June about its questionable handling of the procurement of a fleet of fighter jets and over an omnibus bill that significantly reduced environmental checks along with a number of other controversial measures.

When the opposition MPs scored points, Mr. Harper's leadership indicators went down and the number of people surveyed who moved into the undecided column went up. It's almost as if they were "parking" their approval as their disappointment grew, said Mr. Nanos.

But the House of Commons has not sat for a number of months – it returns on Monday.

"As a result, there hasn't been as much of a platform for the opposition parties to attack the Prime Minister," said Mr. Nanos, "and some of those Canadians who were grumpy towards the Prime Minister in the spring and parked in the undecided column have gone back in the Stephen Harper column."

Of course, the attacks will resume now that the MPs are back in their seats. And that means Mr. Harper's strong leadership showing could again be in jeopardy.

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But prime ministers have their destiny in their own hands, said Mr. Nanos. "Many times," he said, "the numbers for the prime minister are a reaction to how good or poorly they are doing or the number of controversies they are trying to manage at a particular point in time."

And Mr. Mulcair does not appear to have a lot to be happy about. The poll suggests he is just 10 points ahead of Bob Rae, the interim Liberal Leader who will be replaced in a race that is to begin this fall.

"He has basically been able to hold on to his honeymoon," said Mr. Nanos, "but we still have to remember that in the long term, when you compare his numbers to [former NDP leader] Jack Layton, he still stands half as tall. Layton, on the index score, scored in the 90s."

The results of the leadership section of the poll are expected to accurately reflect the opinions of the broad Canadian public within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

The survey, meanwhile, suggests support for the three political parties remains static. The Conservatives were in the lead with the nod of 32.4 per cent of decided voters while the NDP were close behind at 30.4 per cent.

The New Democrats briefly edged the Conservatives in national support last spring then dropped back a couple of percentage points but the spread remains within the margin of error of 3.4 per cent. The Liberals stood at 24.6 per cent, the Greens at 5 per cent and the Bloc Québécois has the support of 20.5 per cent of those surveyed in Quebec.

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