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The undeclared federal election campaign of inches begins

A combination photo shows Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.


A federal election isn't officially under way, but party leaders have wasted no time zeroing in on the key ridings that will decide who forms the next government.

While Michael Ignatieff landed on the West Coast as part of a 20-riding whirlwind tour, Prime Minister Stephen Harper descended on the suburbs of Toronto Thursday with a series of announcements of his own, each of them in campaign mode before the campaign has begun.

Their strategies highlight the belief in both camps that the next election will not be won or lost in the old way, at a national level on national issues, but instead will be a ground war decided in a handful of seats.

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The Conservatives need to harvest a gain of 12 ridings from the 45 they've targeted to reach a majority government. They're convinced the route to victory runs through the swaths of suburbia currently held by the Liberals around Greater Toronto and Vancouver and they're counting on ethnic minority voters in these ridings to swing behind their business-friendly, law-and-order, family-values platform.

Mr. Harper delivered a disciplined message Thursday as he pledged to cut red tape for small business and discussed his economic action plan with Indo-Canadian business leaders. He then took his motorcade to Mississauga, where he expressed his commitment to public safety and religious freedom by standing in solidarity with leaders of the local Coptic Christian church, a community threatened by attacks in Egypt over the New Year period.

"I want Coptic Christians to know that Canadians stand behind their community and their right to practise their faith in safety and security, free of persecution," Mr. Harper said.

The church he visited sits on the boundary of two important ridings, one held by the Liberals and one held narrowly by the Conservatives. The congregation is nearly 10,000 strong, so winning over its constituents would be a significant gain for the Prime Minister.

Rev. Angelos Saad described Mr. Harper's visit Thursday as a historic moment of great significance for Copts in Canada, although he avoided what he described as the "sensitive, political question" of how his congregants would view the Prime Minister's attention.

"We try to keep politics outside the church," Father Saad said.

But if the Conservatives are determined to steal vulnerable seats from the Liberals, the Liberals are no less determined to do the same to the Conservatives, and in the same locales.

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Michael Ignatieff is on a cross-Canada tour of ridings in which he hopes to make gains. Thursday saw him in Richmond, B.C., where he spoke to the Canada-Asia Pacific Business Association. The next event on the schedule was a town hall in West Vancouver. Both ridings are held by Conservative MPs.

In what could be a pillar of the Liberal election strategy, Mr. Ignatieff posed to the gathered Asian-Canadian business leaders a set of questions that opposition politicians often rely on to unseat a governing party.

"Are you, the Canadian family, better off than you were five years ago?" he asked. "Is the Canadian economy stronger than it was five years ago? Is Canada more respected in the world than it was five years ago? Is our democracy stronger than it was five years ago?"

The Liberals are counting on the recent recession, Mr. Harper's initial reluctance to engage with the Chinese government and the Prime Minister's autocratic style to sway the same voters that the Conservatives are wooing.

The increasingly frenzied political atmosphere could be predicated on a false assumption: that all three opposition parties will vote against the budget that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is expected to introduce in March.

The Liberals have indicated they are no longer prepared to keep the Conservatives afloat by reluctantly supporting their budgets. Despite poor current standings in the polls, Mr. Ignatieff has made it clear that his party wants to bring the government down.

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But the Bloc Québécois might be persuaded to support the budget if the Conservatives can find $2-billion or so for an enhanced harmonized sales tax agreement with Quebec.

If the Conservatives can survive the budget vote, then all of this pre-election electioneering might have been for nothing. But no one can yet predict with certainty how that vote will go. And no leader can risk relaxing during the parliamentary recess when an election campaign might be weeks away.

NDP Leader Jack Layton delivered a prebudget speech this week in Sudbury, proposed a "national public transit strategy" Thursday in Toronto and will outline what he thinks Canada should do in Afghanistan during a Friday event in Ottawa.

But Mr. Layton said his heavy schedule of travel and announcements is no different that what he always does when the House of Commons isn't sitting.

"We try to get off Parliament Hill, which is just a bubble of lobbyists and spin doctors and rancorous, dysfunctional debate and we try to get out and connect with people," he said. "I do this kind of thing every January."

With a report from Bill Curry in Ottawa

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About the Authors
Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More


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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