OTTAWA — With the TV debates behind them, the federal leaders are off to spend a frenetic last couple of weeks working to seal the deal with the wavering, the undecided, the persuadable. And a series of recent polls suggests that some of those voters are shifting their intentions. The NDP appears to be losing steam, the Liberals are holding steady, and support for the Conservatives is on the rise. The second French-language debate Friday was a moment to try and influence those trends in Quebec, a province with a fat cache of 78 seats that was dominated by the NDP in 2011. The leaders' closing statements provided an inkling of where their strategies lie. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and the Bloc's Gilles Duceppe both spent part of their last words talking about how they would ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies — an issue they believe has serious traction. For Harper, increasing his seat count in Quebec would create a nice buffer if the party winds up losing seats in Ontario next door. "I need more Quebecers on my team," Harper said, an appeal to voters who like to imagine their MPs wielding power in cabinet. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Quebecers had been told for too long that they only had two choices for prime minister, and that he was there to say there's another, experienced leader ready to do the job. The party needs to keep its power base intact in Quebec if it is to have any hope of challenging the Conservatives for power. Justin Trudeau, the Liberal leader, spent his 90 seconds talking about optimism and a bright future for the province. Trudeau will be fighting to take back seats lost to the NDP in ridings with large number of anglophones and Quebecers from minority groups. "We Quebecers and Canadians, we've always known how to dream big, to invest in our future, and build together," Trudeau said. "It's time to do it. It's time that Canada become the country of ambitions." Trudeau and Mulcair attacked Harper with gusto on issues that emphasize a conservative-progressive divide, including women's rights and gun control. The Liberal leader accused Harper of being disingenuous for acting as a defender of gender equality on the contentious issue of Islamic face coverings when his party has a poor record on other matters concerning women. Only 20 per cent of Harper's candidates in the election are female, he noted. "You have more men in your caucus who are anti-abortion than there are women who wear a niqab in Quebec," Trudeau said, pressing Harper to say whether he is pro-choice. At another juncture, Trudeau accused Harper of being "completely in the pocket" of the American and Canadian gun lobby. Canada has still not signed on to the Arms Trade Treaty, a pact designed to cut down the flow of weapons to human rights violators and criminals. The Conservative government has suggested that gun owners could be unfairly caught up in the treaty. "If the gun lobby isn't powerful, why are we the only country in NATO that hasn't signed that treaty?" Trudeau said. "Canada agrees with almost all of the elements of that treaty, and we're consulting with industry," Harper responded. Mulcair also took a few swipes at Harper over the Senate spending scandal. He said nobody believes the Conservative leader when he says he didn't know his chief of staff secretly repaid $90,000 of Sen. Mike Duffy's contested expenses. "When you have ties to Duffy and he does fundraising for you and then you try and hide it, no one believes you," said Mulcair. "It's a revolving door of favouritism and corruption in your office. You wanted to change Ottawa and it was Ottawa that changed you." Harper is making his only Newfoundland and Labrador stop of the campaign on Saturday, a province where the party doesn't hold out much hope of gains. But the Conservatives do appear to see a path to victory elsewhere by focusing on cultural identity issues, such as the niqab. On Thursday, the party announced a proposal to open an RCMP tipline for Canadians who want to report "barbaric cultural practices," such as forced marriage and honour killings. "The reality is that we recognize that, from time to time, we must not hide our identity," Harper said during the debate. "We do that for reasonable reasons and it's necessary to have legislation, it's supported by the population, we want to encourage equality between men and women in Canada." Mulcair is making a stop in Upton, Que., where he is likely to talk about upholding the supply management system for dairy and poultry farmers. An agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal involving 12 countries, could be announced as early as Saturday, although it remains unclear what concessions might be made by Canada.
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