By PAUL ADAMS
Globe and Mail Update
Ottawa The Canadian Alliance is on the threshold of an electoral breakthrough, according to the latest Ipsos-Reid poll.
The poll, done for The Globe and Mail and CTV, shows the Alliance with the support of 28 per cent of decided voters — the highest level the party, or its predecessor, the Reform Party, has ever enjoyed in a national poll. In fact no opposition party has shown so strongly since Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien became Prime Minister in 1993.
The poll gave the Liberals 45 per cent of respondents.
"We've got an election race," Darrell Bricker, president of public affairs at Ipsos-Reid, said Thursday.
For the Alliance, there are two key findings in this poll. First, the party has begun gaining ground in the crucial electoral battleground of Ontario.
Second, Canadians are warming to the party's leader, Stockwell Day, at the very moment that their opinion of Mr. Chrétien is getting worse.
The Liberals and the Alliance have both been trying to turn this election into a two-party race (outside Quebec, at least) and they seem to have their wish.
The Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats each have just 8 per cent support nationally. The Bloc Québécois, which runs candidates only in Quebec, has 37 per cent support in that province.
According to a seat projection commissioned by The Globe and Mail, at these levels of support, the Liberals would likely retain their majority — perhaps even increasing it slightly from the 1997 election results.
The Alliance, however, would likely also win more seats. The Tories and NDP would probably fall below the 12 seats necessary to retain official-party status, while the Bloc would return to Parliament with its caucus only slightly reduced.
The most encouraging news for the Alliance — and a danger signal for the Liberals — is in the trend the poll reveals and the underlying sentiments voters are expressing toward the two parties and their leaders.
When respondents were asked whether their opinion of Mr. Day and the Alliance had changed in recent weeks, 28 per cent said it had improved compared with 18 per cent who said it had worsened.
In contrast, 39 per cent of Canadians said their view of Mr. Chrétien and the Liberals had worsened in recent weeks. Just 14 per cent said it had improved.
Mr. Bricker said Thursday that the poll shows Mr. Chrétien with "the lowest approval rating since May of 1997."
Ipsos-Reid began polling three days before Mr. Chrétien called the election and finished three days after.
The results of the poll may partly reflect the rough ride Mr. Chrétien had last week about his decision to call an election early in his mandate, and the Auditor-General's harsh review of the government's financial management.
The poll also offers an interesting clue as to why Mr. Chrétien reversed his decision to rename Canada's highest mountain, Mount Logan, in honour of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who died last month.
Fifty-nine per cent of Canadians opposed the idea, the majority of them strongly.
With 103 seats, Ontario is the key battleground in the campaign and the poll suggests the Alliance is now poised to win seats there, achieving the breakthrough in the province that twice eluded the Reform Party. The Alliance has 28 per cent support in Ontario — higher than it has ever enjoyed. According to The Globe and Mail's seat projection, at that level the Alliance could expect to win about a half-dozen seats in the Liberal bastion. (The Liberals won all but two of the province's seats in 1997.)
The Alliance is now crossing the "take-off point" at which most political analysts say the party would stand to make even more substantial inroads in the province.
The Liberals' insurance against an electoral defeat seems to be in Atlantic Canada, where the party now enjoys a 34 point lead over its closest competitor, the Progressive Conservatives. At that level of support, the Liberals could come close to reproducing their 1993 performance when they swept every seat but one in the region.
British Columbia also holds opportunities for the Liberals. In past elections, the party has often appeared strong in polls before the election was called, but then slipped during the campaign.
Indeed, this poll shows there has been some slippage for the party in B.C. recently. However, at the same time, the Liberals are benefiting from the near-collapse of the NDP vote in the province, offering them the potential to gain a few seats in the Alliance's back yard.
Similarly, this poll suggests that the Liberals' prospects in the Prairie provinces are not as dire as some have supposed. At these levels of support, they would hold their current seats and perhaps even pick up a few.
In Quebec, the Liberals now have a lead of 43 per cent to 37 per cent above their only serious opposition in the province, the Bloc. That could produce a small gain in seats by the Liberals at the Bloc's expense.
This poll will come as extremely discouraging news to the Tories and the NDP. For the Tories, according to the seat projection, it raises the possibility of a defeat on the scale of the 1993 election, when the party held on to just two seats.
For the New Democrats, similarly, it suggests that they could be relegated to their post-1993 status, when the party elected only a Western rump of MPs, insufficiently large to give the party official status in the House of Commons.