Feb. 29, 2004
JONATHAN HAYWARD/CANADIAN PRESS
Conservative Party leadership hopefuls Stephen Harper, left, Tony Clement and Belinda Stronach during a debate in Ottawa on Feb. 22.
 
I agree; me too (Feb. 28) 
Stronach evades Barbados questions (Feb. 27) 
Web Belinda whips up new politics (Feb. 22) 
Reversing that sinking feeling (Feb. 21) 
Harper sets sights on Clement (Feb. 18) 
Echoes of Tory revolution (Jan. 21) 
Clement attacks (Jan. 21) 
Editorial: Fresh face, tired ideas 
Stronach a 'working mom' (Jan. 20) 
Travers: Feeding the media 
Stronach, Harper tied: Poll
Voter appeal of former Magna boss called `astonishing'
Clement a distant third in public support, EKOS survey finds

BRUCE CAMPION-SMITH
OTTAWA BUREAU

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Belinda Stronach?

It's a long shot, but new poll numbers show Stronach, running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, is virtually tied with rival Stephen Harper in public support at a time when more and more Canadians are seeing the new right-wing party as a serious alternative to the Liberals.

It's not likely that Stronach will be moving into 24 Sussex Dr., the PM's official residence, any time soon, said Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates.

"But it's now something that's moved into the realm of statistical possibility according to the polling," he said.

In a nationwide poll done for the Star last week by EKOS, 45 per cent of people surveyed said they would consider voting for a Conservative party led by Stronach, compared to 42 per cent for Harper.

Tony Clement, the third candidate in the race, trailed at 36 per cent.

Graves said the results are "astonishing" for Stronach, the former head of Magna International, who launched her political career just last month with a bid to lead the new Conservative party.

"Here's a person who is an utter neophyte on the political stage, had virtually no experience or profile and is suddenly running, at least in the views of the public, neck and neck with Stephen Harper, who's been around for a long time," Graves said.

"Essentially, they're tied in public esteem. I find that remarkable," he said.

The news is all bad for Clement.

"Mr. Clement, who has actually been talking up some interesting ideas and appears to be fairly agile on stage, is absolutely out of the race as far as the public is concerned."

While he trails his competitors in the race for public support, he didn't even register on the all-important question of who would make the best Prime Minister.

"It does show a somewhat distressing disconnection between ideas, substance and one's political fate," Graves said.

On the question of who is best suited to be Prime Minister, Harper had a slim advantage over Stronach — 5 per cent compared to 4.

Just 2 per cent thought New Democrat Leader Jack Layton was the best candidate to be PM.

Yet none of them came close to the overwhelming popularity of the man who has the job now — Paul Martin.

Despite the fallout from the sponsorship scandal, which has dragged his party down in the polls, 28 per cent thought Martin was the politician best-suited to be Prime Minister. However, 55 per cent had no opinion.

The poll was conducted between Feb. 23 and 25 with 1,020 Canadians, aged 18 and over. The results are considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Just as surprising as Stronach's popularity has been the swelling support for the newly minted Conservative party — even though it's got no leader and no platform.

Support for the party is up almost nine points since last December, when the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties came together as one, and today stands at 32 per cent.

The new party has been able to capitalize on the scandal that has seen support for Martin's Liberals drop by almost 14 points to 42 per cent in the same period.

The new party has been making its marks as Conservative MPs take aim at the Liberals daily in Question Period.

And the party is set to let loose with a series of scathing pre-election "attack" ads that slam the Liberals as criminally corrupt, and the Prime Minister as a dithering flip-flop artist whose company skipped out on paying Canadian taxes.

"You shift another five points of Liberal support into the Conservative camp and they're government. It's not that implausible a shift," Graves said.

"It's been a rather meteoric rise in the fortunes of the Conservative party," he said.

With the rifts in the right-wing movement now healed, prospects for the federal conservative movement are looking better than they have in a decade, the poll shows.

Nationwide, the Conservatives enjoy their strongest support in Alberta at 63 per cent. That's double the support of the Liberals, and despite Martin's best efforts — he visited the province again last week — it's not likely his party will make inroads, the poll says.

The Liberals enjoy an 11-point edge in Ontario but their stranglehold on the province is threatened by the stronger Conservative party, which has 36 per cent support.

In the Prairies, it's shaping up as a three-way race between the Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP. In Atlantic Canada, the Liberals and Conservatives are in a dead-heat.

The Liberals outpace the Conservatives in both B.C. and Quebec, where the Conservatives have their lowest support at just 11 per cent.

In another bit of good news for the Conservatives, voters are growing more confident that the opposition could handle the duties of government although doubts still exist — 41 per cent said they don't feel comfortable that any of the opposition parties could form a competent government, down slightly from 50 per cent in June, 2002.

But there's a message for the Conservatives, too.

While they are preparing to make issues such as taxes and the economy and ethics and accountability key planks in their election platform, the polling shows that social issues like health and education top voters' concerns by a margin of almost two to one.

The strong public support for Stronach could have interesting implications for the Conservative leadership contest, which will be decided on March 20 in Toronto.

But Graves cautions that her support is not rock solid.

"She's different, she's attractive, she seems nice and smart and that's about it. And she's not Paul Martin and I think that's all working in her favour," he said. "The public will submit her to much sterner tests before they actually say this is the right person. I'm surprised she's frankly done as well as she has."

Harper, who is seen as "very trustworthy, parsimonious," could benefit from the ongoing ethics controversies now dogging the Liberals, Graves said.

"Whatever people may say, his shortcomings are on the charisma front or the policy front, people would certainly view him very credible on this front," Graves said.

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