OTTAWA — Stephen Harper doesn't have a reputation as a gambler, but his 2015 federal election call is shaping up as an all-or-nothing bet on another Conservative majority.
The prime minister heads into tonight's nationally televised, French-language leaders' debate with only Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois as a potential supportive dance partner after the votes are counted on Oct. 19.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Green party Leader Elizabeth May both slammed the door this week on any prospect of propping up a Conservative minority government, joining Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in their flat out disdain for keeping Harper in office if his party can't command majority support in the House of Commons.
"There isn't a snowball's chance in hell," Mulcair said Wednesday on the campaign trail.
"We would not ever collaborate or support Stephen Harper," May told The Canadian Press in an editorial board the same day. "It's critical that he be gone before the Paris negotiations (this December on climate change) for the health of those negotiations."
"There are no circumstances in which I would support Stephen Harper to continue being prime minister of this country," Trudeau averred a day earlier.
Harper won a majority government — his first — in the 2011 general election on the strength of a pitch that explicitly called for a majority mandate. He's avoided such talk during eight long weeks of campaigning this time around as most polls have had the three major parties deadlocked in a three-way tie.
Asked about the absence of his majority pitch earlier this month during a campaign stop in Whitehorse, Harper warned voters of "some kind of unworkable coalition that ends up with an agenda nobody actually voted for."
"So I don't know whether that's a choice, but I know the only choice to keep us moving forward is a strong, stable, national majority Conservative government and that's what I continue to advocate," he said at the time.
There were early signs Thursday that the logjam could be starting to break, with three different pollsters suggesting New Democrat support may be beginning to soften, to the benefit of both Conservatives and Liberals.
"Overall, it's fragile," pollster Jean-Marc Leger said of NDP support. "It's really fragile in Quebec."
That makes tonight's French debate in Montreal a critical milestone for Mulcair. It also makes him a target.
When Parliament was dissolved for the election, the NDP held 54 of Quebec's 75 seats, with no other party in double digits. The Liberals held seven seats, five ridings were represented by Independents and five by Conservatives with a splintered Bloc Quebecois and Forces et Democratie splitting the remainder.
Under new riding redistributions this election, the House of Commons increases to 338 seats from 308, including three new Quebec electoral districts which will give the province 78 MPs.
The leaders' debate is the third of the campaign but the first to be nationally televised by the major networks. It is also the first to include five party leaders, adding May of the Greens and the Bloc's Duceppe to the mix.
It also marks the beginning of an intense nine-day period that will see three leaders' debates in all, two in French and one predominantly in English.
The wild card tonight is the emotionally charged issue of religious face coverings and citizenship ceremonies.
Harper and Duceppe will find themselves on one side of the issue, facing off against Mulcair, Trudeau and May.
Both the Conservatives and the Bloc have put out campaign ads exploiting the divisive niqab debate, although the issue only touches a miniscule fraction of Canada's one million Muslims, who in total comprise just 3.2 per cent of the population according to the 2011 census.
May had harsh words for both Harper and Duceppe this week when asked about the niqab controversy.
"Excuse me, this is not an issue," she said. "This is a cynical manipulation."
The leaders kept a low profile in the hours before the debate, though Trudeau held a photo-op with his wife and their three children playing in a park.
The Conservatives announced they would buy the Neustadt, Ont., house where former Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker was born and establish it as a National Historic Site.
The New Democrats, meanwhile, released an open letter to CBC president Hubert Lacroix urging him to "hold out hope for a brighter future that may be just weeks away" by stalling a plan to sell off the public broadcaster's real estate assets.
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