VICTORIAVILLE, Que. - When a popular Quebec mayor recently announced he was running for the federal Conservatives in this fall's election, the gathering included 20 of the region's 23 mayors.That, says Alain Rayes, shows it's becoming less taboo in certain parts of Quebec to be publicly aligned with Stephen Harper's Tories.''They took the risk of being seen next to (a Conservative) candidate," says Rayes, who has been mayor of Victoriaville since 2009.The central Quebec town is about 150 kilometres east of Montreal and is in a riding won by the Bloc Quebecois in 2011.Support for the Tories is increasing in other historically small-c conservative parts of the province according to recent polls that indicate the party could outstrip by far its 2011 Quebec seat count of five.Rayes says the rise in Conservative fortunes in the province is evidence Quebecers "want a seat at the table."Gerard Deltell, a well-known provincial politician and another Tory recruit, says the spike in support for the Conservatives is due to Harper's tax cuts — something Quebecers are not used to with provincial governments — and the party's performance on the economy and security."The Conservatives can recruit those guys who are the grassroots candidates — those who are deep in the community" said Deltell, who recently left his job as a member of the legislature for the right-leaning Coalition for Quebec's Future.Another big name to announce his candidacy for the Conservatives is Jean Pelletier, who for years ran Quebec City's winter carnival.Rayes, Deltell and other party activists say the person responsible for attracting star candidates and explaining the Conservative message to Quebecers is Denis Lebel, Harper's lieutenant in the province."I feel it on the ground," Lebel says in an interview, admitting he is the party's Quebec "conductor.""The welcome I get is different (than prior years). Everything is possible."Lebel drove around the province toward the end of last summer to meet voters and woo them back to the Tories.He knows Quebecers often vote in waves. In 1984, Brian Mulroney surged to power with the help of victory in 58 out of 75 ridings in the province. He repeated the trick in 1988 with 63 seats.The latest example in Quebec came in 2011 when the popular Jack Layton led the NDP to 59 seats in the province.Before Lebel's 2014 summer tour, the Conservatives were polling roughly at 12 per cent in Quebec. Now, poll aggregator website ThreeHundredEight.com puts the Tories at about 21 per cent and indicates the party could win more than 20 seats.The Tories currently have five Quebec MPs, including four cabinet ministers.Harper's best tally in Quebec was at the 2006 and 2008 elections when he won 10 seats both times. The Conservatives were shut out of the province in 2004 when Paul Martin's Liberals won a minority.Current polls suggest the Tories are becoming more popular around the Quebec City region as well as in areas up to 200 kilometres north and south of the provincial capital.While the Conservatives believe the improved numbers are down to party policies they say are resonating across the province, some Quebecers say it's the individual candidate who is leading them to vote Tory.Jean Marcotte, director general for Victoriaville-based accountancy firm Roy Desrochers and Lambert, says he used to be a sovereigntist and that he will vote Tory — even if he isn't Conservative — because of Rayes."If Rayes chose the Liberals or the Bloc, we would have followed him," he said in an interview.NDP spokesman Marc-Andre Viau says the Tories have one big disadvantage even if he can appreciate how the Conservatives are fighting to win seats in Quebec."I know they are pushing hard to get star candidates — or who they think are star candidates," Viau said."But when you tell voters that a vote for a so-called star candidate is a vote for Stephen Harper they think twice because Harper is not a popular figure in Quebec, contrary to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair."Yet Antoine Tardif, the 25-year-old mayor of Daveluyville, near Victoriaville, says what's most important when voting Conservative is not Harper, but gaining influence. Quebecers, he believes, are increasingly looking to the Tories as the party that will give them the best chance to be in government.''Quebecers are going to be tempted to vote Conservative," he said. "We want to have a seat at the table to influence things.'' Meanwhile, Louis Plamondon, one of only two remaining Bloc Quebecois MPs, tried to dampen Tory ardour by saying Quebecers have seen it all before with the Pierre Trudeau Liberal governments and the Mulroney Conservatives."We tried the Liberals and the Tories and the NDP and look how that helped us," he said. "Every time these parties had to choose between Quebec's interest and Canada's interest, they chose Canada every time."
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