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Tories: High hopes dashed

Globe and Mail Update

Conservative hopes for power were shunted aside during Monday's election as the Liberals pulled out an unexpectedly strong result in Ontario.

Only a few weeks after excited talk about a possible Tory majority, the party will be forced to watch its rival form the next government.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper conceded defeat and praised the other leaders, including Prime Minister Paul Martin.

"I will admit that I feel some disappointment," Mr. Harper told the boisterous crowd at a rally in Calgary.

"I congratulate Mr. Martin on the mandate he has received," he added, drawing boos at the mention of the Liberal leader's name.

"Mr. Martin has been given a mandate, but it is a modest mandate," he added. "We, the loyal opposition, will continue to hold them accountable."

The Tories, who have suffered through several permutations since western alienation drove the birth of the Reform Party more than a decade ago, were again left on the outside of power after their fourth straight failure to break through in vote-rich Ontario.

The final tally shows the Tories won 99 seats across the country, well behind the Liberals' 135. The Tories won only one-fifth of the seats in Ontario, the province that has eluded the political right since the days of Brian Mulroney.

"We will keep up the fight to make sure that someday the voice of the West will be heard in the corridors of power," Mr. Harper said.

Polls before the vote showed the party had little chance of winning any seats in Quebec and had do well in Ontario to have any hope of forming the next government.

Quebec results confirm that the party has indeed failed to win even a single seat, which left the Conservatives' only hope in the hands of Ontario voters who had solidly chosen Liberals in the last three elections.

The Ontario tally indicates that the Tories, while they have done better there than they have in more than a decade, fell far short of the blue tide they were shooting for.

The Tories were elected in 24 Ontario ridings, not quite one-third of the number of ridings that the 75 the Liberals won.

The Tories did manage to knock off two Ontario members of the Liberal cabinet, Defence Minister David Pratt in the Ottawa-area riding Nepean-Carleton and Agriculture Minister Bob Speller in Haldimand-Norfolk, a southern Ontario riding.

Former Tory leadership candidate Belinda Stronach barely managed to win in Newmarket-Aurora, a riding to the north of Toronto. She squeaked to a slim victory, 615 votes ahead out of about 50,000 cast.

Conservative fortunes were rosier in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where they held a commanding position in most ridings. Seven Tories won in Manitoba, half of the 14 ridings up for grabs. The party also took 22 of the 36 seats contested in British Columbia.

It was the opposite on the East coast, where the Tories — who held eight Atlantic seats in the last Parliament — slipped slightly to take seven ridings. They scored victories in two Newfoundland ridings, three Nova Scotia ridings and three others in New Brunswick.

Mr. Harper, secure in his party's dominance of the prairie provinces and Alberta and aware of the need to win the battle for Ontario, spent the bulk of the campaign in the eastern province.

Polls show that the Tories found receptive ground early in the race but slid in the latter half as the Liberals stepped up efforts to portray Mr. Harper as a far-right-winger who would wreak havoc on Canada.

Mr. Harper worked hard to sell his party as a moderate rightist alternative to the Liberals, who worked equally hard to paint the Tories as too extreme on social issues.

On Monday night, only weeks after musing about a Conservative majority, Mr. Harper was left to take solace where he could find it.

"[Voters] have deprived the Liberals of the majority they thought they were entitled to," he told the Calgary rally.

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