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Jason Kenney, 46, moves to National Defence and provides the Conservatives with a media-savvy minister to sell Canadians on an expected extension of the campaign in the Mideast.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper shook up his foreign policy team with a mini-shuffle that vaults his most valuable lieutenant into National Defence as the date approaches for Canada to decide on extending the politically sensitive military mission in Iraq.

Jason Kenney, 46, moves to Defence and provides the Conservatives with a media-savvy minister to sell Canadians on an expected extension of the campaign in the Mideast.

Rob Nicholson, 62, takes over Foreign Affairs to fill the post left empty after the abrupt departure of John Baird.

This was Mr. Harper's second shuffle in nearly four weeks, and one that was entirely prompted by the surprise exit from politics of Mr. Baird, 45, last week.

Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre replaces Mr. Kenney at Employment and Social Development Canada, an additional responsibility for him.

Mr. Harper announced the moves on Monday morning after a swearing-in at Rideau Hall.

The shuffle makes Mr. Kenney a leading government spokesman on the two major foreign policy issues of the day: Canada's participation in the U.S.-led effort to undercut Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, and efforts to blunt Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

Mr. Nicholson, a low-key and competent minister, is reliable at sticking to the government line, even in the face of strong criticism, but lacks the persuasive rhetorical firepower of Mr. Baird and Mr. Kenney.

Conservatives say Mr. Kenney has long wished for the Foreign Affairs portfolio, but his outspoken criticism of China's totalitarian leadership and the fact that the Prime Minister, who is also from Calgary, cannot fill all the top jobs with MPs from one area, make it unlikely the Calgary Southeast MP will head the diplomatic corps any time soon.

This shuffle nevertheless ensures that a minister with strong persuasive communication skills is handling the future of Canada's military campaign against the Islamic State as an election approaches and the risks of a combat mission must be justified to voters.

The current air combat mission over Iraq, as well as the deployment of 69 special forces troops to help Kurds fight the Islamic State, must be renewed by the week of April 7. That's the end date for the current six-month mission in the motion passed in Parliament last fall.

Mr. Harper is struggling with a decline in cabinet bench strength after losing Mr. Baird, who will quit as an MP shortly, and Jim Flaherty, who left in March, 2014, and died suddenly a few weeks later of a heart attack. The two men, veterans of Ontario provincial politics, were among Mr. Harper's most competent ministers.

The Prime Minister owes Mr. Kenney a great deal for helping the Conservatives win a majority government in 2011. The Calgary MP, in his role as ethnic outreach czar, won support from new Canadians in key battlegrounds such as the Greater Toronto Area.

Mr. Kenney has acquired a reputation as Mr. Fixit for the Prime Minister.

After building bridges to immigrant communities, Mr. Kenney overhauled Canada's immigration system to make economic value the key factor in selection of newcomers. He was moved to Employment and Social Development Canada in 2013 after public outcry over jobs being lost to foreigners, where he revamped programs for hiring temporary foreign workers.

Mr. Harper's priority today includes the fight against Islamic State. The shift in the debate to fighting terrorism and maintaining public security since deadly attacks on Canadian soldiers last fall has shaken up federal politics.

"Over the past few months, the focus on terrorism and security has helped rebuild the brand of Stephen Harper and he is now locked in a tie with Justin Trudeau," pollster Nik Nanos said.

The shuffle represents a major promotion for Mr. Poilevre, 35, who is taking over one of the largest departments in the federal government.

Mr. Kenney's move is a sign that Ottawa feels the reforms to the temporary foreign worker program are sufficiently under way.

With a report from Bill Curry