Confident Harper asks Ontarians to side with party in power

SAULT STE. MARIE AND THUNDER BAY — The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech to supporters during a campaign stop in Windsor, Monday April 25, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper is hardening his pitch to riding-rich Ontario, where his bid for a majority government will be won or lost, talking as though he'll win and asking voters whether they want to align themselves with the party in power - or outsiders.

Mr. Harper normally shies away from predicting election outcomes, but the Conservative Leader said Monday that he's "confident we're going to win the election."

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With one week left, Mr. Harper is planning two to three more days of campaigning in Ontario as the battle for votes comes down to who can best win favour in Canada's most populous province.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff will spend much of this campaign's final week in Ontario as well, targeting Tory and NDP ridings his party believes can be won back.

Mr. Harper is targeting 10 to 15 opposition-held seats in the Greater Toronto Area and a handful of ridings elsewhere in the province as part of the Conservative bid to gain full control of the Commons on May 2.

On Monday, Mr. Harper embarked on the first of several swings through Ontario, stumping in Sault Ste Marie and Windsor. After a quick stop in Quebec's Eastern Townships Tuesday, he'll return to Ontario Wednesday and Thursday.

The Tories are courting more seats in suburban Toronto and smaller Ontario cities to tap what they believe is a middle-Ontario silent majority that's tired of elections and wants stability. They're gambling that this, combined with their fiscally conservative platform and extensive outreach to immigrant Canadians in the GTA, will deliver more ridings on May 2.

Mr. Harper is sounding increasingly confident as the campaign winds down, asking voters to consider whether they want their riding to be left outside the Tory tent.

The Conservative Leader tailored this pitch for Northern Ontarians Monday, but he could just as easily have been talking to voters in the Liberal GTA stronghold.

"We're coming to many areas of the country that have been unrepresented in government for some time," Mr. Harper said.

He lamented the fact that Sault residents, who've elected a New Democrat for many years, had to rely on Tory MPs in nearby Conservative ridings to lobby for federal measures in the border city.

"Isn't it a shame that it took Tony Clement down in Muskoka, Greg Rickford up in Kenora to identify the kind of priorities we need here in Sault Ste. Marie. When there are serious economic issues facing communities and facing people in Northern Ontario, they do not need MPs whose simple view is they're going to vote against everything," he said. "We need people who are going to work with the government and with the people in this area to make things actually happen for this area."

The Liberal comeback strategy hinges on "unparking" votes that the Liberals believe are currently in the weak grasp of the NDP, while also convincing an estimated 800,000 potential Liberal voters who sat on their hands in 2008 to get out and vote for the party.

That could restore ridings lost to the Conservatives on the edge of Toronto, in the high-tech hub of Kitchener-Waterloo and in Northern Ontario ridings held by the NDP - which is why Mr. Ignatieff stopped there Monday en route to Vancouver.

But even if this strategy succeeds, it will leave the Grits far short of the seats they need to form even a minority government. And the time needed for a greater surge that turns whole swaths of ridings from blue to red appears to be in short supply. Polls released Monday suggest the party of Laurier will have a challenging time climbing back into second place as a national party.

As well, the history of many Liberal ridings over the last decade has been one of safe seats devolving with each succeeding election into vulnerable seats that are, finally, lost.

But the Conservatives, after winning a riding by even the narrowest of margins, typically build on that win in subsequent elections, thanks to organizational discipline and the advantage of being the party in power.

As he tries to make further inroads around Toronto, Mr. Harper is working to insulate himself from Liberal allegations that he would trim health transfers to the provinces as a means of balancing the budget.

In his strongest language yet, the Conservative Leader championed health-care spending, saying he would defend it from budget pressures to balance the deficit.

"There is no spending priority of government that is more critical than this," Mr. Harper told a crowd in Sault Ste. Marie. "This is an unshakeable commitment. Canadians from coast to coast to coast rely on our health-care system and rely on governments to keep that health-care system strong and that is what we will do."