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Winning Quebec: Harper Conservatives Duke It Out With NDP For Province's Affections

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HARPER QUEBEC
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to guests at celebrations marking Quebec's Fete nationale on Friday, June 24, 2011, on a farm in Thetford Mines, Que. (CP/Jacques Boissinot) | CP File

Quebec's flirtation with the NDP will soon turn sour, leaving the Tories to fill the vacuum as the province's federal party of choice.

So declared Conservative Leader Stephen Harper during a campaign-style speech in Calgary over the weekend.

"Quebec's honeymoon with the NDP will pass," the Prime Minister told party supporters. "As many provinces know well, no honeymoon passes as quickly and as completely as one with the NDP."

Of course, Harper knows better than most the fickle nature of political love affairs in Quebec, where his party was reduced to five seats from 11 in the May 2 federal vote.

At only 16.5 per cent support, the Tories fell far behind the New Democrats and even the Bloc Québécois. Conservative MPs were pushed out of eastern Quebec, the Saguenay region, and Quebec City. Only a few MPs south of the provincial capital and one near Lac-St-Jean survived the pasting.

It was the second consecutive campaign in which the Tory vote fell in the province. A rough 2008 campaign had reduced the party's support to less than 22 per cent and saw one incumbent in Quebec City defeated, though 10 out of 11 sitting MPs were returned to the House.

Gone are the heady days of the 2006 election, when the Conservative took nearly 25 per cent of the vote and 10 seats, a surprise breakthrough that included wins in and around Quebec City and even a few seats in the Outaouais and the Saguenay.

The 2006 campaign was all the more remarkable considering how poorly the party had done in 2004, when the newly merged Conservatives took only 8.8 per cent of the vote and not a single seat.

Stephen Harper is better positioned in 2011 to again make the Tories a force in Quebec. Recent polls hint that the Conservatives are doing better than they did on election night, although this is far from a consensus opinion. The Tories have made several overtures since the election, defending Quebec's asbestos industry against international condemnation, and a visit by the Prime Minister on St. Jean Baptiste day in the middle of the NDP's Canada Post filibuster.

Polls conducted throughout the month of June put the Tories anywhere between 15 per cent and 24 per cent support in the province, placing them either in third behind the Bloc or second to the New Democrats. A weighted average of June's polls puts the Conservatives at about 19 per cent support, an improvement of 2.5 points since May 2.

But the honeymoon with the NDP is far from over. The same weighted average puts Jack Layton's party at 47 per cent, up from the 43 per cent of the last election.

"Here we've got a guy," said NDP MP Joe Comartin told the Globe and Mail, "who's saying our honeymoon is going to be over quickly with the people of Quebec after he didn't have anything more than a one-night stand."

When he was leader of the Bloc, Gilles Duceppe often said that "everybody wants to sleep with us, but no one wants to marry us," referring to his party's dalliances with various governments and opposition parties.

Likewise, national parties have always had a flirtatious relationship with Quebec. Now that the Bloc is out of the picture, is the province ready for a long-term relationship with one of them?

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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