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After months of stagnation, Conservative gains in some polls released over the last few weeks have again raised the possibility of a Tory majority. But an analysis of the ridings the Conservatives might target to attain or surpass the elusive 155-seat mark needed shows just how difficult it will be for Stephen Harper to reach his goal.

In the 2008 election, the Conservatives were 12 seats short of a majority. After a few resignations, by-elections and expulsions from caucus, the Conservatives still hold 143 seats in the House of Commons.

In the last election, there were 12 seats in which the Conservatives lost by a margin of 4 per cent or less. Logically, these would be the 12 seats targeted by the Tories in the next campaign. But of these 12, only three are especially vulnerable: Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, Burnaby-Douglas, and Edmonton-Strathcona.

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In the first two, Liberal MP Keith Martin and NDP MP Bill Siksay have announced their intentions not to run again in the next election. This leaves their seats without an incumbent. As both seats were won with a handful of votes in 2008, they are ripe for the Conservative picking. Linda Duncan, meanwhile, stole Edmonton-Strathcona for the New Democrats by a margin of only 1 per cent. It is traditionally a Conservative seat, and unless NDP numbers in Alberta improve it could easily return to its roots.

Of the remaining nine ridings in the top 12, five are held by incumbents who have been elected at least twice before. They include well-known figures like Ujjal Dosanjh and Ruby Dhalla. And all of these ridings have a long history with the incumbent party or another opposition party. This means voter loyalty and strong organizations - difficult things to overcome in any election.

Assuming the Conservatives can win these three vulnerable ridings, they would still need to win another nine. Those targeted would most likely be the 10 ridings in which the Conservatives lost by a margin of 5 or 6 per cent.

Of these, only one is especially vulnerable: Newton-North Delta. Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal is a two-time incumbent in the riding, but the seat went to the Conservatives in 2004 and its constituent parts voted for the Canadian Alliance prior to the riding's creation the year before.

Of the remaining nine, three are held by popular or long-time Liberal MPs: Ken Dryden, Joe Volpe and Wayne Easter. Three others have voted for the current MP in three or more consecutive elections, and in those ridings with first-time or sophomore MPs the voting history is anything but Tory blue.

Still, it is possible to overcome even larger margins. In the 2009 and 2010 by-elections, the Conservatives won ridings in which they had lost by 15 per cent in the 2008 general election.

There are 28 ridings in which the Conservatives lost by between 7 and 15 per cent in 2008, and several of these will be targeted by the party in the next election. Five are especially vulnerable. They are ridings in which there will be no incumbent, such as Kingston and the Islands, or where there is a long history of voting for the Conservatives or their predecessors, such as the ridings of Avalon and British Columbia Southern Interior.

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But most of these 28 seats are used to electing Liberal, New Democrat, or Bloc Québécois MPs, and are represented by well-known figures such as Mark Holland, Nathan Cullen, Ralph Goodale, and Michael Ignatieff. They will not fall easily.

Nevertheless, it will be possible for the Conservatives to overcome some of these handicaps, particularly in the 17 ridings where they lost by less than 6 per cent in 2008. It may be enough to put them over the top - but that assumes they do not lose seats anywhere else.

That could be wishful thinking. While some recent polls have been positive for the Conservatives, a more sober aggregation of data paints a bleaker picture. Compared to the 2008 election, the Conservatives are down four points or more in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec. They are holding steady in Ontario while the Liberals have improved, and their gains in Atlantic Canada have been outstripped by those of Mr. Ignatieff's party. And those recent polls, none of which have given Mr. Harper a lead greater than the one that gave him a minority government in 2008, have yet to be confirmed as anything other than a momentary spike.

In this context, it's necessary to consider the 17 ridings in which the Conservatives won by a margin of 5 per cent or less. Of these Tory seats, 13 are occupied by relatively unknown backbenchers. In six of these 17 ridings the ousted Liberal or New Democratic MPs will be running again in the next election, and in half of them there is a long history of voting for one of the opposition parties.

The Conservatives may have hit their ceiling under the leadership of Stephen Harper. Targeting specific groups with individual pieces of legislation and policy may net the party a few more seats here and there, but it will take a flawless campaign for the Tories to keep the seats they currently have and turn those piecemeal gains into a slim majority.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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