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Harper risks Quebec in high-stakes regional gamble

Stephen Harper is embarking on a make-or-break political gamble in this election, risking crucial Quebec seats to woo Newfoundland while promising billions a day later to cushion the blow.

It's not every election campaign in which a federal leader picks a side in a longstanding disagreement between two provinces. What's even more rare is that the Conservative Leader favoured Newfoundland, where his party has no seats, over Quebec, where it has 11.

Within 24 hours, Quebec complained about federal favouritism for a Newfoundland hydro project, laid out a list of demands and heard a promise from the Conservatives for $2.2-billion to settle a bill for tax harmonization.

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The same Conservatives who didn't deliver the long-awaited payment in last week's federal budget were suddenly desperate to make good after a rocky first campaign week in Quebec.

"We want to work together; we don't want to fight," Mr. Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Christian Paradis, pleaded as he made the rounds of Quebec media on Friday to announce the promised cash.

One peace offering may not do much to help the Conservative campaign recover in Quebec. Negotiations for the settlement stretched on for 14 months, and Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said he was fed up waiting.

Quebeckers are unlikely to see any special favour in the harmonization payment, given that similar settlements were reached quickly with Ontario and British Columbia while Quebec has waited 20 years.

The promised tax settlement comes post-dated to Sept. 15, and with one other string attached: The re-election of the Conservative government on May 2.

But the promise may get one irritant out of the way as the Conservatives try to compete in more than a dozen seats in play in the province - more than enough to turn a slim minority into a narrow majority.

Most of Quebec isn't exactly a battleground. More than half the province's 75 seats in francophone, nationalist areas seem to be painted in semi-permanent Bloc blue. Another dozen are staunchly federalist and Liberal Red.

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For a while, it looked like Mr. Harper had given up on improving on the 10-seat result of 2008, plus the extra seat the party picked up in a by-election. Mr. Harper railed for days against the menace of a supposed coalition with separatists, seeming once again to forget that Quebec nationalists have long been willing to support the Tories.

By Friday, a promise to help Newfoundland had Mr. Harper facing a united front of Liberal Premier Jean Charest and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, backed by the entire National Assembly.

Mr. Charest, who traditionally sends a letter to all federal parties outlining demands from Quebec for federal elections, made a rare personal foray into the campaign.

He accused Conservatives of threatening to wreck an electricity market that works well for Quebec's powerhouse Crown utility, Hydro-Québec.

The Conservatives promised to guarantee a loan to finance $4.2 -billion of the $6.2-billion project to run an underwater power line from Newfoundland to New England.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale was thrilled, predicting the Conservatives would win back some seats in the province, where four would be an historic high.

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Mr. Charest called the promise "stunning."

"They are changing the price of electricity. They're changing the price paid by consumers. It's unacceptable. We have a market that works well. The federal government has never intervened, we can't tolerate them intervening now," Mr. Charest told reporters at Quebec's National Assembly.

"Now, it's an election promise, people will take it into account with everything else, and we'll see what happens with the election."

On the campaign trail in Quebec City, where Conservatives are fighting the Bloc for seats, Mr. Duceppe threw his support behind the Liberal Premier. All Quebec parties, federalist and sovereigntist, from the left and the right, spoke out against federal aid for the project.

"When all those people agree, and Mr. Charest puts it forward, we speak in the name of the National Assembly," Mr. Duceppe said. "Whether Mr. Charest is federalist or not, he's the Premier of Quebec and I'm not ashamed to take up his cause when there is consensus."

It was moments after Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Charest spoke on Friday morning that Mr. Paradis extended the olive branch to meet one of Mr. Charest's demands.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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