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Fundraiser boosts morale of Quebec Tories

But polls offer little hope of better times

Globe and Mail Update

MONTREAL — Quebec Conservatives engaged in the long struggle to rebuild the party brand in the province received a rare morale boost yesterday in the form of 2,300 paying supporters.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced it was the biggest gathering of Quebec Tories since the merged Conservative Party was formed in 2003.

"They can never again say I have written off Quebec," Mr. Harper said.

But it will take more than one well-attended $150-a-ticket fundraiser to reverse Tory fortunes.

Even the Conservative senator who organized the evening had to nod to the party's tough time in the province.

"It seems we hear nothing but bad news in Quebec, but when I see a hall like this ... it would seem the party is doing fairly well in Quebec," Senator Leo Housakos said.

But the din of the packed hall couldn't drown out a harsher reality: In the province once thought central to Mr. Harper's hope of forming a majority government, a series of recent polls show the Conservatives lagging a distant third and offer little suggestion of better times ahead.

"I don't know that there are any positive signs," Leger Marketing pollster Christian Bourque said.

"The big increase we see in support for the Liberals is still fragile. Maybe the big offensive for the Tories is to get at that soft Liberal vote. Quebeckers also tend to be less negative about the economic situation than other Canadians. But those are pretty weak handles to hold on to."

Mr. Harper reminded supporters of the goodies he used to woo Quebec francophones over three years, including the recognition of Québécois nationhood.

Those efforts faded from view during the 2008 election campaign when Quebec artists and left-wing activists successfully attacked the Conservatives for cuts to arts travel funding and for a promised crackdown on youth crime.

Then when Mr. Harper launched a foray against the separatist menace behind a threatened NDP-Liberal-Bloc-Québécois coalition at the end of last year, he insulted many Quebeckers, and not only separatists.

More recently, cuts to the CBC and a disastrous television appearance by Heritage Minister James Moore, where he was unable to name several Quebec and Canadian cultural icons, added to an impression that Tories don't get Quebec.

"Again, it's that trust issue. They don't know Quebec culture, they don't understand it, they misinterpret it," Mr. Bourque said.

"It's very funny because everybody was applauding the recognition of the Quebec nation not even two years ago now. How quickly things change."

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