SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I.-- Conservative cabinet minister Gail Shea offers a blunt retort when asked about the perception that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has become as popular as potato blight on Prince Edward Island.
"I'm not asking anyone to marry him, right?'' the fisheries minister said deadpan after a recent all-candidates forum in Summerside, the largest city in her western P.E.I. riding of Egmont. "I'm asking them to look at his policies.''
Of the four seats on the Island, all but one-- Shea's-- are held by Liberals. And prior to Shea's razor-thin election win in 2008, Egmont had been a Liberal stronghold since 1980.
Still, Shea remains popular in a riding that she won by more than 4,000 votes in 2011. She has a solid reputation as a hard-working, no-nonsense politician who has delivered for Prince Edward Island, qualities that her rivals acknowledged during the forum.
"Islanders don't like voting against somebody who they think is doing a good job,'' says Don Desserud, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. "No one doubts her dedication.''
However, the idea that Harper has become a millstone around Shea's neck has led to speculation that this rural riding will be one to watch early on election night.
"The big problem for Gail Shea is not Gail Shea, it's Stephen Harper,'' says Peter McKenna, chairman of the university's political science department. "The guy is radioactive here. He's toxic on P.E.I.''
The story is much the same in much of Atlantic Canada, where the Liberals are expected to hold seats or make gains at the expense of the Tories.
Newfoundland and Labrador is considered a wasteland for Harper, while Nova Scotia's four Conservative seats remain vulnerable with only one incumbent in the race. As for New Brunswick _ the most small-c conservative of the four provinces _ the Tories are expected to hold on to most of the seats they had when the election was called.
McKenna says Egmont is expected to go to Liberal Bobby Morrissey, a former provincial cabinet minister who served in the legislature for 18 years.
Morrissey says he's never contested an election where the desire for change has been so strong.
"Door after door, (voters) have grown weary of Stephen Harper's style of government,'' he says. ``They want to get rid of Stephen Harper.''
But Morrissey faces challenges of his own.
Both the NDP and Green candidates are well-known Islanders who could siphon anti-Harper votes from the Liberals.
NDP candidate Herb Dickieson has been a local physician for 27 years, leaving an indelible, personal impression on thousands of families in the riding. He is also known for being the first and only New Democrat to win a seat in the provincial legislature in 1996.
He was defeated in the 2000 election, he says, partly because the governing Conservatives warned voters they could be losing a doctor if Dickieson won again.
Doctor shortages have been a perennial problem in rural P.E.I.
"I've done everything I can to fill the gaps left by the Liberals and Conservatives,'' Dickieson said in an interview. "I want to correct where they have failed.''
To unseat Shea, Dickieson will need the support of people like Denis Marantz of Tyne Valley, a long-time Liberal who has switched to the NDP.
"We have to break out of the box of traditional politics,'' says Marantz, who worked in the Privy Council Office in the mid-1970s when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. "The Liberals have been fast and loose with government spending in the past and I'm not sure that they'll change that much in the future.''
The NDP has never held a federal seat on P.E.I.
As for the Greens, former CBC broadcaster Nils Ling was a latecomer to the race. But he enjoys a high profile as a playwright, author, actor, filmmaker and syndicated columnist.
Ling admits the odds are against him, but he says he draws inspiration from the May 2015 provincial election, which saw voters in central P.E.I. make history by electing Peter Bevan-Baker as the legislature's first member from the Green party.
"I'm not renting an apartment in Ottawa,'' says Ling. "But I'm saying that we're going to make inroads.''
He says voters are telling them they're sick of politics-as-usual on the Island, where the Senate expenses scandal featuring former Islander Mike Duffy ``just feeds into the narrative of an anybody-but-Harper sentiment.''
Just across the street from Ling's dingy campaign office in Summerside, resident Jan Haakman says he will be voting for the Tories.
``I like Harper,'' says Haakman, who works for the City of Summerside. `` He's a good steady man. Trudeau is too young. That ad, where he's 'just not ready,' at first it sickened me. But after listening to him speak, he's just not ready.''
Thane Barlow, a retired welder from Kensington, P.E.I., says his father and grandfather voted Liberal and he sees no reason to end the tradition.
``That Mike Duffy affair, that's been going on for too long now,'' he says. ``He should be taken out with a piece of rope. That won't happen. He'll get off scot-free. And people don't like Stephen Harper.''
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