OTTAWA — More than 3.6 million voters flocked to the advance polls over the holiday weekend, Elections Canada said Tuesday, as the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history moved into the home stretch.
The four-day total marks an increase of 71 per cent over advance ballots cast in the 2011 federal election, when only three days of advance polls were held, and provides compelling evidence of a motivated electorate.
Heightened interest in advance voting, however, doesn't necessarily translate into an overall increase in the proportion of voters who cast a ballot. About 14.8 million people voted in 2011 — just 61.1 per cent of eligible electors — and Stephen Harper's Conservatives won a majority government.
Now, after almost 10 years in power, Harper is in a tough fight. Not a single public opinion poll currently suggests his party is on track to win a majority of the 338 seats up for grabs in the House of Commons and a number of surveys have the Conservatives chasing Justin Trudeau's Liberals.
The prime minister has begun literally putting cash on the table in an effort to change the momentum in the final week of the 78-day campaign.
With just five days of campaigning left, the Conservatives have twice staged low-tech stunts designed to illustrate how much they say Liberal tax changes will cost voters.
The prime minister played the role of game show host again Tuesday at a partisan rally in west-end Toronto, calling out Liberal tax increases as a pizza store owner counted bills onto a table to the backdrop of a loudly ringing cash register.
"The tax hikes the Liberals talk about, they are not just numbers in a pamphlet," said Harper, without jacket or tie and with his blue shirt sleeves rolled up.
"They are real dollars and I want to show you again today what the payroll tax hikes look like."
Conservative party videographers took tight shots as pizza store owner Dino Ari laid bills on a table to repeated "ka-chings" from a cash register.
"Hand it over, Dino," Harper coached. "I hope you counted that carefully."
The Conservatives staged a similar display on the Thanksgiving weekend and the stunt appears destined for party advertising.
All three major party leaders were in the greater Toronto area on Tuesday morning as polls continue to suggest an electorate in flux and swaths of seat-rich Ontario up for grabs.
Antipathy to Harper's Conservatives appears to be the only unifying element among the various challengers to the throne.
"I got into politics because I disagreed deeply with the vision that Stephen Harper has for this country and there is no circumstances in which I could either support him or even stand back and allow him to be prime minister," Trudeau said when asked about a potential minority Conservative government.
The Liberal leader, who ventured into an NDP-held riding in Toronto, appears to be trying to peel off voters from both the New Democrats and Tories, while hoping to win over strategic voters who might see an incumbent NDP MP as the best vehicle for removing Harper from office.
"You do have a choice — multiple choices," Trudeau said. "I won't pretend that you don't.
"To suggest otherwise would be arrogant and an insult to your intelligence, so I'm not asking you to look at the polls. I'm asking you to look at our platform."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, framed by a crowd of partisans waving orange, octagonal "Stop Harper" signs, spoke to a rally in Oshawa, Ont., just east of Toronto. He continued to maintain that New Democrats are only a few dozen seats short of unseating the Conservatives — notwithstanding that every party starts with zero seats when Parliament is dissolved and a new general election campaign begins.
"Mr. Trudeau in this campaign has spent more time going after the NDP than he's spent going after Stephen Harper," Mulcair charged. "I challenge Mr. Trudeau to start taking on Stephen Harper."
Even Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe is predicting a swift end to Conservative rule in the event the Tories can't eke out a majority in the newly expanded 338-seat House of Commons.
"Stephen Harper will not be prime minister even if he finishes with the most seats in a minority Parliament," Duceppe said during a campaign stop in Granby, Que.
Harper, who spent the 2011 election campaign warning repeatedly about a potential, unstable coalition government if he couldn't secure a majority, is refusing to speculate on any such outcome this time.
With no potential dance partners after Oct. 19, Harper is counting on rallying his core support.
The Conservative leader visited the highly symbolic Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, where former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff lost his seat in 2011 en route to the worst Liberal electoral drubbing in party history.
Etobicoke is also Ford country, as in the well-known Toronto city councillor and former mayor Rob Ford and his brother, Doug, both of whom attended Harper's morning rally. They were introduced as "two great sons of Etobicoke Centre."
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