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Guns or health care: How do you win over the rural voter?

Stephen Harper has taken aim at rural Canada with a pledge to scrap the long-gun registry and lay siege to the ridings of 14 opposition MPs who changed their votes to preserve the registry in the last Parliament.

Mr. Harper, who also promised Monday to create a hunting and wildlife advisory panel, believes this is the wedge issue that will extend his dominance of rural ridings. The NDP and the Liberals think differently. They're targeting the same regions with policies for seniors, health care, food production and broadband Internet access.

The question all parties are trying to answer is how best to target the rural voter. Rural issues tend to get short shrift in election coverage, but they hold a potentially significant payoff.

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More than 40 per cent of Canada's 308 ridings have population densities of fewer than 150 people per square kilometre, the definition of rural used by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Twenty per cent of those seats are close enough to qualify as targets for one party or another.

Keith Neuman, vice-president at Environics Research, said the differences between rural and urban Canadians are not as pronounced as many assume. Surveys show their attitudes on most issues to be almost indistinguishable, with a few exceptions.

"They're a little more socially conservative," Mr. Neuman said. "But it's not a dramatic difference."

Rural Canadians are a little less likely to express confidence in the health-care system, or be sympathetic to immigration and multiculturalism. They're also tougher on crime, more likely to oppose abortion rights and, significantly, about 10 per cent less likely to support gun control.

That may explain why Mr. Harper stopped in Welland, Ont., on Monday, a riding he hopes to seize from the NDP, to emphasize Conservative opposition to the gun registry.

Joe Schonberger, 56, who owns a farm in Welland, said the gun registry is one of the issues that will decide his vote. He's also in favour of lower taxes and a better risk-management system for farmers. He said he knows all the local candidates and they're all good people, but he doesn't expect to have any trouble deciding how to cast his ballot.

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"Farmers philosophically tend to be a little right of centre, even if they don't always vote that way," Mr. Schonberger said. "It's difficult when you live in an urban country that doesn't know what it's talking about on rural issues. So we tend to think individually."

In a country with as many regional differences as Canada, though, rural issues shift. The concerns of the Prairie farmer are not those of the fisheries worker in Atlantic Canada, or the exurban commuter in Ontario.

Rural ridings tend to be fairly stable. And because they have fewer voters, retail politics plays a bigger role.

An analysis led by André Blais at the Canadian Election Study found that rural voters are more likely than urban voters to state a preference for a particular local candidate.

Prof. Blais said it follows logically from his research that rural voters would be more inclined to return the incumbent if they feel the person has been doing a good job. If they do shift, that shift is emphatic.

In the Eastern Ontario riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, for example, Conservative candidate Pierre Lemieux took the riding from the Liberals in the 2006 election, won it again in 2008 and is favoured to win it this year. Before that, one part of the riding had been Liberal for 43 years, and the other part for 124.

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Because of their political stability, however, rural ridings rarely receive the attention of political leaders in election campaigns, despite being over-represented in the House of Commons. Constitutional and legislative guarantees protect the minimum number of seats Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland may have, which may be one reason why rural issues figure in the strategizing of political parties, if not in the public conversation.

Liz Schabbar, manager at White Meadows Farm in Pelham, Ont., would like to vote for the Green Party, but in the absence of a Green candidate will back the NDP.

She agrees with NDP Leader Jack Layton that Mr. Harper's focus on the gun registry is misguided. But she's dismayed that agriculture just doesn't register as a major election issue.

"The elections are just not about us any more even though we're the breadbasket," she said.

A senior Liberal official said rather than look at wedge issues, his party is trying to bridge the urban-rural divide with pledges to create a national food policy and universal Internet access.

"For every guy who has an anti-gun control sticker on his pickup [Michael Ignatieff]gets the vote of this guy's wife and daughters," said the senior official. "You tend to caricature what attitudes are like toward gun control in rural areas. There is no question that the registry has some irritants, which is why we are looking at removing those irritants and we're going to do it."

With reports from Jane Taber, Tamara Baluja and Rick Cash

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