Leaders size up real estate ahead of vote

One says Sussex Drive, the other Stornoway.

OTTAWA — One says Sussex Drive, the other Stornoway.

Jack Layton and Stephen Harper don’t agree, naturally, on where the NDP leader ought to be after Monday’s vote — running the country or leading the official Opposition.

But the very fact they’re talking seriously about such things — once laughably unlikely, now forehead-slappingly possible — shows just how utterly on its ear the federal campaign has been turned.

Layton, looking comfortable in an elbow-patch cardigan and brandishing his cane as he took to the rally stage in Winnipeg, nearly brought the house down Wednesday with a well-worn bit of dare-to-dream campaign rhetoric.

“As your prime minister,” he began, only to be drowned out by a deafening chorus of partisan cheering. “Sounds like you like that phrase,” he grinned mischievously.

Beaming, Layton tried it again. The cheering got louder every time.

“Don’t you want to hear what I’m going to do?” he chuckled.

Harper, campaigning in Waterloo, Ont., had some ideas on that score, painting Layton as an inexperienced opposition leader who would seek to topple the Tories should they be denied a majority.

“The fact that the NDP may be the leading opposition party — that, I think, actually clarifies the choice for Canadians,” Harper said.

He then laid out the same contrast he’s been describing from the outset: higher taxes and spending and constitutional hand-wringing on one side, a steady Tory hand on the economic tiller on the other.

“We think this country needs to get past the cycle of minority parliaments and more elections, and make sure our economy continues to emerge strongly and quickly.”

The NDP in particular, he said, has “economic policies that are designed for opposition, rather (than) for actually governing.”

The Tories, on the other hand, have a strong, clear record on the economy, he said, and “one of best records, in fact, coming out of the recession, in the world.”

A series of recent opinion polls have suggested the NDP leads the Liberals nationally, and that Harper’s coveted majority may be beyond reach.

The latest, coming Wednesday from Ekos Research, had the NDP at 28.1 per cent, firmly in second place behind the Conservatives at 34 per cent, and the Liberals languishing at 22.9 per cent.

The Bloc Quebecois, and the Green party, both of which have taken a beating at the hands of the NDP, were at 6.6 per cent and 6.5 per cent, respectively.

The poll, conducted Sunday through Tuesday, surveyed 2,792 random Canadians. It carries a margin of error of 1.9 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

While the NDP and the Liberals find themselves in a sprint to the finish, the Conservatives — anxious to avoid any late-game missteps — are content to let their two principal rivals do battle, doing their level best to inspire little more than a sustained yawn.

It wasn’t until after Harper’s handlers had once again sealed the prime minister off from the media for the day that word emerged of another Tory strategist leaving the campaign amid controversy.

The top strategist left the Harper campaign after a Quebec media mogul outed him for supplying false information.

The Conservatives confirmed that Patrick Muttart “has no further role” with Harper’s team after he was outed as the source of false information about Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

Sun Media owner Pierre Karl Peladeau took Muttart to task for supplying false information to the news organization that inaccurately portrayed Ignatieff as a planner of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Muttart was a key backroom player in Harper’s election victories in 2006 and 2008, and was working on the current Conservative campaign as a consultant.

Ignatieff, meanwhile, was doing his best hockey-coach routine in hopes of lifting his party’s flagging electoral spirits.

“We have got a lot to play for in the next four or five days in this election. This thing is not over,” Ignatieff said after a campaign event in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

“We’re in the middle of the third period here.”

Only the Liberals present a viable alternative to the Conservatives, Ignatieff repeated during the event.

He dismissed the NDP as a party of perpetual opposition, campaigning on a “wish list” of election promises that are more rooted in fantasy than reality.

The Liberals say Layton’s campaign promises don’t add up. He cannot abolish the Senate by himself, he cannot freeze provincially regulated tuition fees, and if he thinks he’ll be able to hire thousands of doctors and nurses for just $25 million within 100 days, he’s dreaming in Technicolor.

“This is a time for political realism,” Ignatieff said. “Canadians don’t want to elect a government based on a wish list.”

Former prime minister Jean Chretien, who led the Liberals to three consecutive majorities, was taking the stage with Ignatieff at a rally in Toronto later Wednesday.

The Liberals are hoping the little guy from Shawinigan can reproduce the campaign magic that brought Liberal victories in 1993, 1997 and 2000.

“People will look at him and they will remember that this party, the Liberal Party of Canada, has actually governed the country — and governed it well.”

Earlier in the campaign, former prime minister Paul Martin joined Ignatieff for a few events, but Martin never forged the connections with Canadians that Chretien did.

Despite his fractured English and lop-sided grin, Chretien always found a way to charm voters.

While all of the federal leaders save Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe were campaigning west of Ottawa, the province of Quebec remained the epicentre of Canada’s electoral tremors.

Ignatieff took out a full-page ad in all of the Montreal newspapers Wednesday to try to arrest the party’s apparent free fall in a province it used to own.

His principal message: Only the Liberals have Quebec’s real interests at heart.

“Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton cannot become prime minister; they can only oppose Mr. Harper,” Ignatieff writes. “That is not good enough. The time has come to replace him.”

Also raising eyebrows Wednesday was the news that Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the NDP candidate for the Berthier-Maskinonge riding in Quebec, is on vacation in Las Vegas.

That revelation came after Ontario NDP candidate for Ajax-Pickering, Jim Koppens, went to the Caribbean with his family earlier this month.

Layton’s response? Blame Stephen Harper.

“A lot of families make plans, and if we had fixed election dates that were being properly honoured — we know Stephen Harper broke that law himself — then it would be a lot easier for candidates to be able to make the plans to participate.”

One of the Conservative government’s first acts after winning the 2006 campaign was to set fixed dates for elections every four years.

Critics are fond of accusing the prime minister of ignoring his own law in 2008 by calling a snap election just two years into his mandate.

Elsewhere on the fringes of the campaign trail, Liberal candidate Ruby Dhalla called Wednesday on the auditor general to investigate allegations that her Conservative rival has inappropriate access to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

Dhalla accused Conservative rival Parm Gill of trying to buy votes by offering to help residents of the Brampton-Springdale riding obtain visas for their family members.

“No political party in our country should be utilizing the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration for the purpose of buying ethnic votes,” Dhalla said.

“This is a new low for Canadian democracy. It speaks and smells of corruption, it speaks and smells of fraud.”

A Gill campaign spokesperson declined comment when contacted by The Canadian Press. A call to Kenney’s office wasn’t immediately returned.

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