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'Cluster' strategy puts Tories on track for majority, poll suggests Add to ...

Stephen Harper's Conservatives are headed toward a majority government without the help of Quebec, a new national poll suggests.

The Nanos end-of-year survey is significant, revealing an emerging Tory strategy in which the governing party is concentrating on winning groups of riding with focused issues. And it appears to be bearing fruit for the Prime Minister.

Forming a majority government for the Tories has for so many months appeared elusive, especially given fragile support in Quebec. They hold just 11 of the 75 federal seats in the province.

"The current configuration of national support for the Conservatives suggests that numerically a Tory majority government can be formed without significant breakthrough in the province of Quebec," pollster Nik Nanos told The Globe. "In this paradigm, the Conservatives narrowcast messages to clusters of ridings on a diversity of issues such as crime, the long-gun registry and social issues that align with their base and which divide the opposition."

The Nanos poll has the Tories seven points ahead of their rivals, Michael Ignatieff's Liberals - 38.1 per cent support nationally compared to 31.2 per cent. The NDP is at 17.2 per cent; the Green Party has the support of only 3.2 per cent of Canadians and the Bloc is at 10. 2 per cent. About a quarter of respondents, or 25.4 per cent, were undecided.

Mr. Nanos's polling suggests the ridings the Tories appear to be concentrating on are in the 905 and 416 area codes - seats now occupied by the Liberals.

He says these "key cluster" ridings had been Conservative under Brian Mulroney. In suburban ridings, Mr. Nanos believes Mr. Harper's team is using "crime as a hot button" and in the rural Liberal and NDP ridings, they are using the long-gun registry as a wedge issue.

"This basically speaks to a strategy where the Conservatives focus on rural and small town Canada along with being competitive among suburban voters," Mr. Nanos said.

Indeed, the Tories won the suburban riding of Vaughan, Ont., in a by-election last Monday after it had been held by the Liberals for 22 years. In that campaign, star candidate Julian Fantino - the former Toronto police chief and Ontario Provincial Police commissioner - played up the Conservative law-and-order agenda.

The poll also shows the Tories have recovered the support they lost over the summer and early fall, partly as a result of concern over the government's decision to scrap the mandatory long form census.

The regional breakdowns are also telling. In Ontario the Tories are leading the Liberals, 42.3 per cent compared to 35.5 per cent. Mr. Harper and his team are also ahead in Atlantic Canada, usually a Liberal bastion, by 43.5 per cent compared to 36 per cent for the Grits. In Quebec, however, the Liberals are still leading the Conservatives - 26.7 per cent compared to 18.3 per cent - although the Bloc is way ahead, polling at 40.1 per cent.

The Nanos poll looked, too, at the top issues concerning Canadians. It found that voters continue to be worried about jobs, the economy and health care.

"What is interesting is the potential forward impact these issues will have on the public mind," Mr. Nanos said. "As the Conservatives wind down their stimulus program, it will be more difficult for them to portray themselves as being pro-active on the economic front."

The Prime Minister announced last week he would extend stimulus the deadline for infrastructure projects to be completed by another seven months. Until that point, the program had been intended to wind up in March.

The Nanos survey found that 22.3 per cent of respondents were concerned about jobs and the economy compared to 20.7 per cent who were worried about health care. The environment was the third issue of most concern although only 8 per cent of respondents mentioned it; high taxes came in fourth with 4.4 per cent of respondents saying they were worried about it.

The poll of 1,002 Canadians was conducted between Nov. 29 and Dec. 2. It is considered accurate within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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