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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks in Quebec City on Feb. 6, 2014.


The political question around Tuesday's budget is how it will affect the economic uncertainty Canadians already feel. That's the ground Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his opponents will be fighting over for the next twelve months.

Mr. Harper has used that uncertainty to his political advantage, painting himself as the safe hand to steer Canada through global economic threats. But the economy, in Canada and the United States, may be starting to spin those concerns in another direction.

Canadians are feeling financially vulnerable. Consumer confidence is eroding. The NDP and the Liberals are trying to appeal to those concerns, and shake Mr. Harper's advantage – in two very different ways.

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That's what makes this year's budget bigger than the billing. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has presold it as a bridge budget with few big spending or tax measures. It will stay the course until next-year's pre-election budget, widely expected to offer tax cuts.

But no news is still a narrative for the Conservatives: This document will budget the path out of deficit and back to balanced books in 2015-16, and the underlying message is that public finances are being prudently steered toward better times.

It fits the storyline that has worked for Mr. Harper in two elections, when he portrayed his Liberal opponents, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, as shaky risks. The economy wasn't perfect, but Canada was coming through tough times better than a lot of Western countries, Mr. Harper argued.

But that might not be so easy over the next year.

The Bloomberg-Nanos consumer-confidence index has dipped to its lowest point since May. Canadians, said pollster Nik Nanos, are somewhat pessimistic about their personal finances, but increasingly worried about the prospects for the Canadian economy overall. "That makes for a grumpy electorate," he said.

Canadians have had economic jitters before. What's different now? There are signs the U.S. economy is bouncing back, and perhaps a perception it is overtaking Canada's.

"For many Canadians, the key comparator in terms of the performance of the economy is the United States," Mr. Nanos said. "If we're doing as well or better than the States, Canadians feel strong and confident. When we're not doing as well, it's, 'why aren't we doing as well?' "

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If the U.S. recovery outstrips Canada's, Mr. Harper's reputation as economic steward, a major advantage now, may be more vulnerable. Both the NDP and the Liberals are trying to shake it.

The New Democrats, for the most part, are trying to compete on pocketbook issues with the Conservatives, who favour niche tax cuts and propose consumer-choice plans like pick-and-pay cable TV. NDP finance critic Peggy Nash called for caps on ATM fees and a return of ecoENERGY tax credits for energy-saving home renovations – an appeal to Canadians' concerns about making ends meet.

The Liberals, however, are opening up a broader attack on Conservative economic management. They've stepped up near-daily questioning of what they call a record of slow growth, poor job creation and high household debt. That may seem like an obvious tactic, but Mr. Harper's opponents have previously shied away from sustained attacks on his handling of the economy.

Liberal finance critic Scott Brison argues they look increasingly out of touch with Canadians' concerns about rising debts, the difficulty their working-age kids have in finding jobs, stagnant wages and vulnerable pensions. The Liberals are focusing on Canadians' sense of financial insecurity and the lack of opportunity for youth, he said.

So far, however, the Liberals are opposing Mr. Harper's economic policies but haven't proposed many of their own – both opposition parties seem to be leaving their substantive economic programs until an election is closer. But it is an effort to touch that nerve of economic insecurity, and use it to chip away at Mr. Harper's advantage on economic issues.

The Conservatives have levers: Even a bridge budget will contain some measures – perhaps low-cost tax measures to address some of those pocketbook fears, along with a reiteration that they'll keep a cap on spending and taxes.

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Mr. Harper's advantage is that on economics, he's seen by many as a less risky choice. But if the economy doesn't keep pace with the U.S., Canadians are likely to feel more insecure – and his opponents will seek to stoke a perception that he's not protecting them any more.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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