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Harper's Quebec Mission: Reconquer Hearts, Minds In Province Before 2015

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STEPHEN HARPER QUEBEC
After letting his support in the province sink to new lows, Stephen Harper seems to be on a mission to improve his party's standing in Quebec. It speaks volumes about the trouble he is in. (CP) | CP

After letting his support in the province sink to new lows, Stephen Harper seems to be on a mission to improve his party's standing in Quebec. It speaks volumes about the trouble he is in.

The prime minister was in Quebec City last week, flanked by a crowd of caucus members, to make an announcement that hardly seemed worthy of such a visit: an investment of little more than $8 million to help ease traffic in the provincial capital during the winter. It was the first step in the Conservative plan to reconquer the hearts and minds of Quebecers.

Behind the scenes, Conservatives have made some changes. Harper's top Quebec adviser, André Bachand, has been replaced by Catherine Loubier and the hapless Christian Paradis has been shuffled out as Quebec lieutenant for the more effective MP from the Lac-Saint-Jean region, Denis Lebel.

They have their work cut out for them. Ever since the Tories' initial breakthrough in the 2006 election — when Conservatives took 25 per cent of the vote in the province and elected 10 MPs — the party has been bleeding votes. Their haul fell to 22 per cent in 2008 and only 17 per cent and five MPs in 2011. The polls put them at around 12 per cent support now, though the latest polls from Quebec-based pollsters put them even lower at eight per cent.

But Conservatives did not need their five Quebec MPs in 2011 to win a majority government. Perhaps this realization contributed to the generally low attention Tories have paid to the province. Surrendering it to the New Democrats was not a terrible strategy: as the NDP endeavours to keep its hold on Quebec, it has the difficult task of balancing the demands of Quebecers with those of Canadians in the rest of the country.

That Conservatives are trying to make a play for seats and votes in Quebec, however, might suggest just how difficult they consider their position to be. Even those five MPs could turn out to be vital, as the hopes of another Conservative majority victory dwindles. If the party believes it cannot afford to surrender any seats to the opposition parties, even those hard-to-keep Quebec ones, it must realize that the next election will be fought tooth-and-nail.

If the Tories are going to re-gain some seats in the province, Quebec City and the surrounding region is key. It is still where the Conservatives poll best, but there is no doubt they have taken a big hit in the provincial capital, losing almost half of their support in the polls. Being able to make the funding announcement next to the popular mayor Régis Labeaume certainly could not have hurt.

And voters in the region are up for grabs. The area swung from a Conservative-Bloc Québécois contest to the New Democrats in 2011, while provincially voters opted for the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec in 2012. The latest surveys suggest that both the federal and provincial Liberals are leading in the area now. Clearly, allegiances are fluid.

But that does not mean voters will be ready to flock back to the Conservatives in 2015. Unless the Tories can find some strong candidates to run in the region in the next election — a difficult task considering how low Conservatives are polling in the province — voters in Quebec City may be more willing to re-elect some of their more popular NDP MPs or give the Liberals another chance.

The Conservatives will not win or lose their government in Quebec, but they may need every seat they can get.

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

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