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Tory lead shrinks in face of Bev Oda furor, Harper's flirtation with majority

The Bev Oda affair and voter unease over the possibility of a Harper majority government has awakened a sleeping electorate that's finally paying attention to federal politics, pollster Frank Graves says.

His latest survey shows big swings in voter intention as the 12.5-point lead Stephen Harper's Conservatives enjoyed over Michael Ignatieff's Liberals two weeks ago has evaporated to a mere five points - 32.4 per cent of Canadians support the Tories compared to 27.3 per cent for the Grits. The NDP has 14.8 per cent support, the Bloc is at 10.5 per cent and the Green Party garners 11.9 per cent.

"This level of activity is a distinct shift in the patterns of the previous year which saw everything pretty well stuck in a narrow rut," Mr. Graves told the Globe. "It appears that the slumbering electorate have come unhinged. Major oscillations suggest people are paying attention."

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That could be because they sense an "imminent election," he added.

The EKOS Research poll of 2,811 Canadians was conducted between Feb. 10 and Feb. 22. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

It comes on the heels of several polls that gave the Harper Tories double-digits leads over the Liberals. Mr. Graves's poll two weeks ago was the first to indicate this dramatic shift.

But his new survey underlines a past trend: When the Harper Conservatives appear to be knocking on the door of a majority government - as the last spate of polls suggested - voters get nervous and pull back.

"The demographics show that the same unhinged voters who had moved to the Conservatives (possibly over the ads) may have blanched at the prospect of a majority and jumped offside (women and Ontarians in particular)," Mr. Graves says in the release accompanying his latest poll results. "This sudden narrowing of the gap is a manifestation of an electorate which is paying more attention than some experts have claimed."

A recent suite of Tory attack ads accuses Mr. Ignatieff of coming back to Canada after decades abroad to grab power for himself. Some pollsters and pundits suggested they led to the increase in Conservative support.

But Mr. Graves now believes now the ads were a flash in the pan. "They aren't very satisfying for very long. If the ads moved the electorate the effects were pretty ephemeral," he told The Globe.

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In addition, the latest results show the race in Ontario is tight with the Tories at 35.9 per cent support compared to 36.4 per cent for the Liberals - a slight lead for Mr. Ignatieff that was not apparent two weeks ago. The survey shows that 28.5 per cent of women support the Tories compared to 27.6 per cent for the Liberals.

And Mr. Graves suggested the recent and sustained controversy over International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda and the altering of a CIDA memo could have contributed to the Tory decline in fortunes. "It also appears that after several error free months the Oda affair has tarnished their standing with the voters. Zap! You're Odasized!"

Hopes for majority fade

Mr. Harper's Conservatives would not earn that coveted majority government were an election were held today. In fact, the EKOS seat projections indicate they would lose 14 seats and be reduced to 129 seats in the House of Commons. The Liberals, meanwhile, would increase their caucus by 11 to 88 seats on the opposition bench.

The NDP would be reduced by two seats to 34; the Bloc would also lose ground, dropping to 47 seats from 54. The Green Party, however, would pick up two seats - one in the Atlantic and another in British Columbia - and there would be one independent, according to the projection.

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