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Conservatives fail to make inroads in Ontario, Quebec

CALGARY

rio again proved the nut the Conservative Party couldn't crack last night, leaving Stephen Harper to head back to the opposition benches with dashed hopes, a victim of expectations he couldn't control.

The Conservative Party, which was created from a merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, performed better than anyone could have hoped when it was created seven months ago. As the campaign rolled along, Conservatives had been quietly optimistic of a minority government.

Those hopes were destroyed when Ontario voted in large numbers for the Liberals. The Grits won about three-quarters of the province's seats. The Conservatives took about two dozen seats, well above the two the Canadian Alliance earned in 2000, but substantially below what they were hoping for.

The mood at Mr. Harper's Calgary headquarters was subdued as a raft of Ontario ridings reported in, all around the same time. Indeed, perhaps the biggest cheer came when television returns showed Prime Minister Paul Martin behind in his home riding in Montreal at the beginning of the evening.

The results will almost certainly lead to grumblings about Mr. Harper's leadership, particularly among former PCs who didn't support him in the party leadership last March.

Several Conservative star candidates were defeated, including Dave Johnson, a former Ontario cabinet minister, and Tony Clement, who went up against Mr. Harper for the leadership. However, former auto parts magnate and Conservative leadership candidate Belinda Stronach was declared elected last night with only a few polls left to report.

The results also cast a new light on Mr. Harper's hard pitch to the Western core last weekend. It appears the party leader had an inkling at that point that things could go sour in Ontario.

University of Calgary political scientist David Taras said Mr. Harper's party proved to be too inexperienced for Canadians to trust with the reins of government.

Mr. Taras said although the campaign began positively, Mr. Harper was hampered by mistakes of his own candidates, many of whom spoke out of turn on controversial issues, from civil rights for gays to bilingualism. "They were like jack-in-the-boxes, popping up all over the place."

He added that if ever there was a time for the Conservatives to experience a breakthrough, this election was it.

"All the conditions were right and they may not recreate themselves," Mr. Taras said. "His best friends were McGuinty and Charest and Chretien. There's no guarantee those kinds of circumstances will come together again."

One senior Conservative, who asked to remain unidentified, said the results may make life difficult for Mr. Harper. The key problem, the official said, is that Mr. Harper has branded the party "all the wrong way."

However, Diane Ablonczy, who was elected in Calgary-Nose Hill last night, said Mr. Harper did a fine job and blamed the Liberals. "I think the Liberal distortion of our platform did have quite an impact, specially because we were such a new organization," she said.

Rod Love, a former senior aide to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, said the campaign may have peaked too soon. "But for those of us who have worked in campaigns, you have to understand is that, at the end of the day, you're not in charge of when they peak," he said.

He also noted that Mr. Harper made a breakthrough that neither Mr. Day, nor former Reform Leader Preston Manning could make. "While it's not the result we wanted, all is not lost."

The Conservatives suffered a bump right off the top of the evening when vote totals in Atlantic Canada dropped substantially, compared to the combined Alliance-PC vote of 2000.

"Obviously Stephen Harper's message has not cut through in Atlantic Canada," Darrell Bricker, of the polling firm Ipsos-Reid, said.

Quebec delivered the Conservatives no seats, despite some hopes expressed for victories in Quebec City and in the Pontiac, a region near the Ontario-Quebec border.

The party also did substantially worse in its British Columbia stronghold. The party's veteran house leader, John Reynolds, was in a nip-and-tuck battle in his riding of Vancouver-Sunshine Coast.

Mr. Harper voted yesterday morning at a local elementary school in his riding of Calgary Southwest, refusing to tell reporters who he was voting for.

He added he wasn't particularly nervous because the outcome was out of his hands.

The dying days of the campaign saw Mr. Harper ratchet up his attacks against Mr. Martin.

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