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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff during his speech at the party biennial convention at the Convention Center in Quebec, Oct. 4, 2009.

MATHIEU BELANGER/Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

To what depths can Michael Ignatieff sink in unpopularity before he begins to climb back?

A new Strategic Counsel/Globe and Mail/CTV poll puts the federal Conservatives within range of a majority government, with 41 per cent support, compared to 28 per cent for the Liberal Party, a yawning, 13-point gap.

Mr. Harper and his Conservatives are ahead of the Liberals among voters regardless of age or education, among both men (46 per cent to 28 per cent) and women (36 per cent to 28 per cent), and in every income level except for those with a household income of less than $50,000 a year.

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But hold your horses. The public has not swung suddenly behind the Prime Minister. Rather, it has reacted to opposition antics in which the Liberals tried to force an election last month.

Voters are not rewarding Mr. Harper. They are deepening their funk with Michael Ignatieff, who has seen his support steadily decline since last May.

"The Conservatives have done a terrific job of branding Mr. Ignatieff as: 'It's all about him, he's just in it for himself,'" said Peter Donolo, a partner at Strategic Counsel. When Mr. Ignatieff decided that the Liberals would no longer prop up the government, Mr. Donolo believes, he confirmed the negative impression that the Conservatives had helped voters to form of him, through a relentless campaign of negative advertising.

Add the worsening blood between the French and English wings of the party, and the situation of the Liberals becomes very dangerous.

"This could become entrenched," Mr. Donolo warned. "And that would be very bad for the Liberals and very good for the Conservatives."

Despite these rosy numbers, the Conservatives continue to insist they do not want an election and continue to court the NDP, who are at 14 per cent in popular support.

Mr. Harper may know that, were the public to believe he was trying to engineer his government's defeat, his popularity could evaporate.

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In other words, the Prime Minister enjoys majority-government levels of support, provided he does nothing with it.

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The Tories remain in desperate straits in Quebec.

"The Conservatives bombed the bridge" in Quebec, Mr. Donolo observed, by condemning the proposed coalition last December as a union of socialists and separatists, which infuriated Quebeckers. Though the margin of error is high, the Bloc Québécois continues to lead comfortably, with 40 per cent support, compared to an encouraging 33 per cent for the Liberals and a dismal 15 per cent for the Conservatives.

At these levels, the Conservatives don't have a safe seat in Quebec.

In Ontario, however, the situation is hugely encouraging for the Conservatives, who are at 46 per cent compared to the Liberals' 30 per cent.

There have been anecdotal and unconfirmed reports that Conservative support is increasing in the suburban ridings of the City of Toronto, as well as in the Greater Toronto Area. Numbers such as these would bolster that speculation.

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In the West, the Conservatives outpoll the Liberals by better than three-to-one, 58 per cent to 18 per cent.

Which sets up the dispiriting prospect that in the next election the Conservatives could win with virtually no support in Quebec, and the Liberals wiped out west of Ontario.

In which case, neither major party could claim the title "national," once again testing the resilience of the federation.

The question now is whether these numbers entrench, regionally and nationally, or whether some new alarum sends voters stampeding in one direction or another.

"The electorate has never been this volatile," Mr. Donolo believes. "That's the real story." He notes also that Mr. Ignatieff's decision to withdraw support from the Conservatives may benefit the party in the long term, allowing it to define itself as something other than a crutch propping up the government.

If so, Mr. Ignatieff may be able to re-brand himself on his own terms, and the numbers could move again.

The Strategic Counsel polled 1,000 adults between Oct. 2 and 4. The results are considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points nationally. The margin of error increases to 6.3 per cent in Quebec, five per cent in Ontario, and 5.7 per cent in the West.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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