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What did Harper accomplish with his capital-punishment quip?

Pollsters are divided as to whether Stephen Harper exercised risky politics, good judgment or simply refocused speculation around a Tory hidden agenda with his musings on the death penalty.

In an interview this week, the Prime Minister told CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge he believes "there are times where capital punishment is appropriate." But calling this a personal view, he said he would not attempt to reinstate it if elected to a majority government.

Not surprisingly, his statements provoked much debate on Parliament Hill. So, we asked our pollster panel to weigh in.

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NIK NANOS thinks it will help bolster the Tory war chest. "This is another example of a hot button issue that is likely to have traction in terms of fundraising," the head of Nanos Research told The Globe on Thursday.

"However, as a party which resulted from the merger of the former Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives, Harper has to tread more carefully on this issue since the former 'progressive part' of the Conservative coalition is more likely to oppose capital punishment."

There are other risks, too, such as the possibility of diversion. "The Conservative numbers usually do well when the perception is that the government is focused on issues related to the economy and jobs. When they have veered into issues that are not priorities for most Canadians such as the census, and the long-gun registry, it conveys a sense that the government has lost its focus."

Mr. Nanos added that Mr. Harper has again opened the door to "possible hidden agenda attacks from the opposition."

FRANK GRAVES believes that, on the surface, it's good politics. "The expression of a personal view on a point of moral conscience which is fairly mainstream, and with a commitment not to pursue it legislatively is pretty safe," the EKOS president said. "I suspect it will help shore up the already pretty tenaciously CPC base and have little negative consequences in the rest of the spectrum."

Like Mr. Nanos, he said the statement could lead to hidden-agenda attacks. "If Michael Ignatieff and the opposition can package the socially conservative values of Stephen Harper and his supporters into a bigger pattern (e.g. attitudes to abortion, capital punishment, scientific knowledge vs. moral conviction, decriminalization of possession of marijuana), which could be used to show that the value system that Stephen Harper and his supporters were using was, overall, incongruent with the dominant values of most Canadians this could be effective."

DARRELL BRICKER says the Prime Minister is "showing solidarity with his party's core voters."

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The Ipsos Reid president noted that Canadian views on the death penalty have changed dramatically over the past 30 years: "Back in the '80s surveys showed that better than 60 per cent supported capital punishment, now it's the reverse." Mr. Bricker said, too, that those voters who would most likely support capital punishment now are Conservatives.

"As for the PM's answer, it was carefully presented," Mr. Bricker said. "What he said is that there isn't a consensus in the country that this debate should be reopened. So, he won't reopen it, even if he has a majority government."

What isn't clear, however, is whether voters who may be considering voting for the Conservatives but are worried about "a move away from the mainstream" will appreciate the "subtlety" of Mr. Harper's position. "On this point, it will likely take more than this interview to set off alarm bells. But, you can certainly see the opportunity it presents for the opposition parties."

DIMITRI PANTAZOPOULOS admires the courage shown by the Prime Minister in taking a "head-on" approach to the contentious issue.

"By expressing his personal view as well as his obligation as an elected official, he has given people an insight into the fact that he understands the complexity of the job to which he has been elected," he said.

The Praxicus Public Strategies pollster, who has worked for the Conservatives, suggested Mr. Harper was not in a winning position no matter how he answered the question.

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"This is a Catch-22 question for the Prime Minister," he said, arguing that had he avoided it his critics would have accused him of having a hidden agenda. "By answering the question in an honest way, even if it is not the answer people are looking for, he is criticized for being honest. Some days a guy just can't catch a break!"

Mr. Pantazopoulos added that Mr. Harper is siding with "the vast majority of Canadians who believe that people who commit the most heinous crimes should face capital punishment.

"I bet if we polled as to whether people believe that Paul Bernardo, Robert Pickton, Clifford Olson and Russell Williams should be given a pass to Club Fed, or given a one-way ticket to meet their maker, the vast majority would opt for door number two."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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