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Liberals gain steam as economy sputters

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has quickly boosted popular support for his party and a possible coalition with the NDP, and is seen as the best leader to work with U.S. President Barack Obama, a new poll has found.

The Ekos poll suggests the Liberal Party is gaining momentum as economic concerns grow, with a majority of Canadians now holding a negative view of Conservative Leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Of the 1,000 respondents, 55 per cent disapproved of Mr. Harper's handling of his responsibilities, while 35 per cent offered their approval.

"That is a very bad number," Ekos president Frank Graves said of the disapproval rating. "That is getting up into [former U.S. president] George W. Bush numbers. Not quite, but 10 more points, and you're up to as bad as it gets for elected leaders."

Mr. Ignatieff, who has been leading the Liberal Party since Dec. 10, has the approval of 44 per cent of respondents and is seen negatively by only 21 per cent of them. However, the numbers show that many Canadians are still waiting to make up their minds about the new Liberal Leader, with 35 per cent of respondents refusing to offer an assessment.

"Many Canadians don't know Michael Ignatieff very well, but they know he isn't [former Liberal leader] Stéphane Dion and they know he isn't Stephen Harper," Mr. Graves said.

The fact that Mr. Ignatieff is an enigma to many Canadians provides the Conservative Party with the opportunity to attack him, especially on the basis that he has spent much of his adult life outside Canada. But the Conservatives need Liberal votes if they want their Jan. 27 budget to pass, which will limit their criticism of Mr. Ignatieff in the short term.

Polls conducted late last year showed a high level of opposition, especially outside Quebec, to a proposed Liberal-NDP coalition in the event the minority Harper government is defeated in the House. The new poll suggests Canadians' feelings have evolved, with 50 per cent of respondents favouring a coalition government, while 43 per cent are happier with the current Conservative government.

"This is a huge change from the period right after the coalition agreement was struck in Stéphane Dion's last days as Liberal leader, when the Tories took an apparently unassailable 20-point lead," Mr. Graves said. "Clearly much of the recoil against the idea of a coalition really had to do with alarm at the idea of Stéphane Dion becoming prime minister so quickly after having been rejected so decisively at the polls."

Still, the Conservative Party continues to lead in overall voting intentions in Canada, with the support of 36.2 per cent of respondents, compared with the Liberals at 32.6 per cent and the NDP at 14.3 per cent.

In addition, the poll suggests that 49 per cent of Canadians want to see Governor-General Michaëlle Jean send the country to the polls if the Harper government is defeated on its budget, instead of allowing a coalition government.

Still, there is a feeling that on the key Canada-U.S. relationship, the Liberals are better positioned to deal with the new Obama administration in Washington. Asked which leader "would be best able to forge a positive working relationship" with Mr. Obama, more respondents chose Mr. Ignatieff (51 per cent) than Mr. Harper (31 per cent).

Mr. Harper, however, is best positioned in the near term to benefit from the Obama factor, as the U.S. President will make his first foreign visit to Ottawa, where he will be received by the Prime Minister.

"That will favour Mr. Harper, being seen on the stage with such an enormously likeable guy," Mr. Graves said.

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