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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the maritime helicopter squadron hangar at CFB Esquimalt on Feb. 22, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the maritime helicopter squadron hangar at CFB Esquimalt on Feb. 22, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Voters cool to a Harper majority government, poll finds Add to ...

Despite the attack ads, the cross-Canada photo ops, the spending announcements and the hammer-it-home promise of low taxes and balanced budgets, Stephen Harper just can't seem to make Canadians welcome the idea of a Conservative majority government.

It's the price he is paying for demonizing Michael Ignatieff, pollster Nik Nanos says.

Only about 26 per cent of Canadians say they would be comfortable with the Conservatives winning a majority after the next election, according to a new poll conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV by Nanos Research.

That number is lower than in any other Nanos survey that asked the same question. About 30 per cent are decidedly uncomfortable with the prospect of a Conservative majority, with the rest responding "somewhat" one way or another.

The continuing voter ambivalence toward a Conservative majority is welcome news for the hard-pressed Liberals - or would be, if it weren't for the other question on the survey.

When asked whether each of the party leaders would help, hinder or have no impact on the fortunes of their local candidate during an election, only 18 per cent thought Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff would boost their fortunes; 30 per cent thought his leadership would do more harm than good. That gives him a net impact score of minus 12 per cent, compared with the plus 19 per cent score he enjoyed when he became leader in April, 2009. It is a precipitous drop.

"The promise of Michael Ignatieff ... has not been realized," Mr. Nanos concludes. From a time when he was more popular than the Prime Minister, Mr. Ignatieff has descended to the point, Mr. Nanos says, where "he is more likely to be perceived as a drag on local Liberal candidates" than an asset. Thirty-five per cent think Mr. Harper's name helps local candidates, versus 25 per cent who think it drags them down, for a score of plus 10.

"It speaks to the missed opportunity to write the narrative on Michael Ignatieff," Mr. Nanos believes. When the Liberals failed to construct that narrative, the Conservatives seized the opportunity and decided to tell the story their way. "Just visiting." "He didn't come back for you." It worked.

In undermining Mr. Ignatieff, the Conservatives failed to build themselves up, to make Canadians feel sufficiently comfortable with Mr. Harper to trust him with a majority government.

It's the price the Conservatives are paying, says Mr. Nanos, "for tearing down and tearing apart their opponents."

The Conservatives are attempting the audacious feat of achieving a majority government with only minority-government polling numbers. Even if an election campaign does not boost their overall popularity, they hope to pick off least 13 vulnerable seats, with most of their attention centred in the suburbs around Toronto and Vancouver.

But the Nanos numbers offer Tory strategists no comfort: The Ontario and B.C. results essentially mirror the national numbers in lack of support for a majority. Even in the Prairies, home turf for the Conservative Party, there are as many people uncomfortable as there are comfortable with the idea.

Campaigns matter, and in an election campaign momentum can suddenly shift. But on the possible eve of an election, Mr. Nanos concludes, voting intentions are clear.

"Canadians would like to see another Stephen Harper government, but not necessarily a majority," he concludes. And it will take "a spectacular game changer" to get them to change their minds.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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