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Jeffrey Simpson

The election ain't over till the voters sing Add to ...

I f a shift in public opinion occurs in an election, it happens in the second half of the campaign. So no one should read significance into the fact that the polls haven't moved much. Maybe they never will. If they do move, it won't start happening until about a week from now.

Shifts - if they occur - take place after the televised debates, assuming a leader made a strong positive or negative impression. Late in the campaign, undecided voters make up their minds.

Nothing might happen right to the end. Some campaigns are like that. In this campaign, there might not be a break either for or against the governing Conservatives. They might inch up their share of the popular vote in enough ridings to win a majority, or fall a bit short. That's what the numbers suggest today, as they have since Day 1.

The campaign has been so dull and devoid of passion or arresting issues that the electorate's preferences today might be more or less the same as on voting day. Presumably, this kind of somnolence is what the Conservatives want, since they lead, they have a good election-day machine and they can count on their older supporters to vote.

And yet, it hasn't been a great campaign for the Conservatives. Little things that reflect their mania for control, for keeping the Prime Minister in a bubble, for being fiercely partisan all the time, have kept throwing their campaign off message. In this, they have campaigned as they have governed. Presumably, Stephen Harper and his campaign team know no other way to do government or politics.

They also have campaigned as they have governed by showering money around the country. They have made billions of dollars worth of promises - to be implemented when the budget is balanced in four to five years. After which, true to form, the Conservatives will start spending like crazy again, just as they did before the recession, when spending grew about 6 per cent a year.

As for the Liberals, they must be happy. Apart from a wobbly early reply to the "coalition" issue, their campaign has run smoothly. The media are giving them good coverage, Michael Ignatieff is receiving plaudits, and the platform rolled out without too many hitches (although Mr. Ignatieff did have to deal with controversies surrounding two Liberal candidates).

At least the Liberal campaign has made them feel better about their party's effort, something they haven't felt for quite a while. In the last Harris-Decima poll, they're seven points behind the Conservatives, and their leader's "favourability" ratings have jumped while Mr. Harper's have declined.

For the Liberals to make this a race, their leader has to be somewhat better regarded and their party has to appear to be a modestly plausible alternative to the Harper Conservatives. There are masses of Canadians looking for that alternative but they haven't yet seen it in the Ignatieff Liberals.

The last Léger Marketing poll, for example, showed that nearly three-quarters of non-Conservative voters found the prospect of a Conservative majority "scary" (Léger's word). Since those voters outnumber Conservatives by at least 3-to-2, it suggests that a whole lot of antipathy to Mr. Harper is waiting to be channelled somewhere.

In the same poll, 55 per cent of possible NDP supporters and 75 per cent of Green ones were unsure whether to back those parties. That support could move to the Liberals by the "scary" prospect of a Harper majority. Mind you, 45 per cent of possible Liberal voters said they might also move, so the Liberals' priority has to be to nail them down.

For Mr. Harper, next week's debates are all about keeping his anger under control, not sounding so partisan all the time, and surviving a three-against-one format that's inherently unfair to the incumbent Prime Minister.

For Mr. Ignatieff, the debates are about showing himself as he has been in the campaign, in contrast to the demonic portrait of him in the Conservatives' negative ads. He needs a lot of voters with a negative feeling toward him to be impressed with what they see. Otherwise, the Liberals' chances will be over.

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