TROIS-RIVIERES, Que. — Stephen Harper moved on to more optimistic turf for his party Thursday, starting a swing through Quebec after several days of sweating it out in the high-stakes electoral battlefield of Ontario.
But he's not quite optimistic enough to go where his Liberal rival did earlier this week when Justin Trudeau uttered the word "majority."
In response to a reporter's question, Trudeau said he is asking voters to give his Liberal party a majority. Harper, who was burned in 2004 for making similar late-campaign remarks, made it clear Thursday he's not following suit.
Campaigning in Trois Rivieres, Que., Harper was asked why he wasn't making the same request as Trudeau in these final days.
"We never take voters for granted in my party. That's not our approach," Harper said. "This is a tight race. We're here to encourage choice."
The choice, as the Conservative campaign puts it, is between a Liberal government that Harper says would drain money from Canadian wallets, and a Conservative government that would help keep it there.
It's a point Harper has been illustrating all week by bringing a family or business owner up on stage to have them literally count out cash onto a waiting table, all to the incessant cha-ching of an old-timey cash register.
On Wednesday, Trudeau was asked about his party's prospects on election day, and in his response he used the M-word — a term that has in the past been seen as stopping voters in their tracks.
"Am I asking Canadians to vote for us? Yes. Am I asking them to vote for us across the country? Yes," he said during a campaign event in Hamilton.
"Am I asking them for a majority government? Yes."
In the 2004 campaign, as leader of the newly minted and surging Conservative party, Harper's late-day majority musings were blamed in part for thwarting a Tory win; Paul Martin's Liberals went on to form a minority government.
It wasn't until 2011 that Harper reincorporated the term into his campaign message, calling for a "strong, stable, national, Conservative majority government" at every stop.
He got his majority, but heading into the 2015 campaign, the party acknowledged they weren't convinced they could engineer a repeat — a conclusion which, it would appear, is being borne out by recent polls.
While Harper's attack in the final days focuses squarely on the Liberals, the Conservatives hope to gain votes in Quebec from the NDP, given they hold the vast majority of seats.
That party's fortunes are slumping nationally, however, and in Quebec that's going in the Conservatives' favour. They are still aiming to double their existing seat count from five to 10.
Drummond candidate Pascale Dery rhymed off names later Thursday of all the Conservative cabinet ministers who have made a swing through her riding in recent weeks, all in a bid to rally support, including Pierre Poilievre, Maxime Bernier, Jason Kenney, Harper's Quebec lieutenant Denis Lebel and Harper himself once before.
"It's a mark of confidence," Dery said.
Harper also taped an interview with Quebec TV host Eric Savail on Thursday; a photograph of him playing piano on the show circulated on social media ahead of the broadcast.
Attempting to woo voters via demonstrating his affection for the arts could be another attempt to right a past campaign wrong; in 2008, Harper saw his support in Quebec plummet after saying ordinary people were turned off by government subsidies for artists.
An issue from this campaign resonating for Conservatives is their ban on the wearing of veils at citizenship ceremonies, a move that's popular in Quebec. A line in Harper's speech Thursday about that commitment drew a standing ovation.
Harper, who frames that debate as one of being in line with Quebec and Canadian values, continued to face questions Thursday about another values issue — why his campaign has linked itself to Toronto's Ford brothers, given the party's staunch anti-drug positions. Rob Ford made international headlines when, as mayor of Toronto, he admitted to smoking crack cocaine. Doug Ford has said he smoked marijuana in high school.
Later this week, Harper's campaign will be returning to the Toronto area for a rally hosted in the Fords' hometown of Etobicoke, Ont., and the Fords are expected to be in attendance, going so far earlier this week to suggest they were organizing it.
Harper said the rally is for all Canadians.
"The rally that you have talked about is a rally of the Conservative Party of Canada," he said.
"We are bringing together all Canadians who want to fight for an agenda of low taxes and balanced budgets to keep our party and our country moving forward."
While the Fords may court some controversy for the campaign, they are exceptionally popular among the so-called "Ford Nation" — hundreds of thousands of people who voted Rob Ford mayor of Toronto in 2010 and backed his brother Doug in that race four years later, though Doug ultimately lost.
With both brothers long-time Conservatives, getting their supporters to throw their weight behind Harper is key for his party to hold on to seats in the hotly contested suburban areas that surround Toronto.
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