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Harper hopes to ride wave of fear over NDP to Conservative majority

DECISION 2011: Layton would make an economic mess of Canada, Tory leader argues.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

OTTAWA -- Stephen Harper is working to whip up a wave of fear about the NDP in the hope of surfing it to a Conservative majority government Monday -- a scenario the party still deems plausible.

The prime minister has rearranged his stump speech to warn about the economic damage that might be caused by a Jack Layton-led "coalition,'' a message designed not only to rally his supporters to the polls but also to stem an orange tide in specific pockets of the country.

That dire message -- predicting higher spending, gas prices, deficits, taxes, unemployment and other economic ills -- comes as the campaign enters its final weekend.

The Conservatives were wildly inaccurate with their own economic projections in the last election, when they denied mounting evidence that suggested the country was sliding into a recession and budget deficits.

They entered this campaign determined to make the economy the ballot-box question. Now, with just two days left, they are sticking with that message as party insiders say they are nipping at the edges of a majority.

The final steps towards that goal include beating back the NDP surge in key areas such as B.C. and Saskatchewan, keeping the left-of-centre vote split in Ontario and motivating their supporters to get out and vote on Monday.

The Tories appear to hope that the scary scenario of socialists wrecking the economy will make voters think twice and send their supporters stampeding to polling stations.

"Tens of billions of dollars of new spending, financed by tens of billions of dollars of new taxes,'' is how Harper is describing the future under an NDP government.

"The only way to avoid that is to stay on a low-tax plan to create jobs and growth, by ensuring a majority government for our Conservative party.''

Because the election is so tight, he said, every riding and every vote could make a difference.

The NDP has actually promised to erase the federal deficit, but its platform has come under increasing scrutiny in recent days from critics who suggest it reads more like the wish list of a party expecting to be in opposition, rather than a serious plan for governing.

Layton, however, scoffed at the Tories' economic message. He pointed out the irony of such accusations coming from a prime minister who introduced sales taxes in B.C. and Ontario that apply to gasoline, who subsidized the oil sands, who promised a cap-and-trade program that hasn't been delivered and who ran up the biggest deficit in Canadian history weeks after promising he'd deliver a balanced budget.

"Maybe he would prefer that people forget that -- but that's the truth,'' Layton said.

The sudden NDP growth is palpable on the campaign trail, as Layton retraces his steps in B.C. and Saskatchewan from earlier in the election and draws twice the crowds and fills halls that were once partly empty.

The added attention has also brought added scrutiny.

Layton's exchanges with reporters have become testier and he spent much of his news conference on Friday working to deny suggestions that if he gained power, he might intervene in the Bank of Canada's interest-rate policies.

Earlier in the day, Layton expressed a personal preference for lower interest rates-- which fuelled his opponents' charges that he would use power to exert political influence over the central bank's economic policy. He repeatedly insisted during the news conference that he supports the long-standing, arm's-length arrangement that is meant to isolate the bank from politics and politicians.

The push back against Layton has been particularly vigorous in Quebec, where the NDP hopes to make its biggest gains at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois.

The message from Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe has become increasingly strident as he works to hang on to the support of the hardest-core members of his separatist base.

He warns that Canada and Quebec's interests are always in opposition, and that the NDP represents the interests of outsiders when it comes to issues such as gun control, designing a climate-change, cap-and-trade system and deciding which industries to subsidize.

The Bloc leader is also tearing a strip off Layton's party for running weak candidates, at least one of whom struggles to speak French, in rural francophone Quebec.

"For them, it's always about Canada. For us, it's always about Quebec,'' Duceppe said.

The Liberal party began the campaign with hopes of taking on Harper. It enters the final weekend struggling to keep Layton from eating further into its dwindling red base.

One thing that hasn't changed, according to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, is the Conservative strategy. He said the Harper government has spent five weeks fear-mongering.

"This is the game plan: Be afraid, be very afraid,'' he said in Val d'Or, Que. "I mean, they keep picking what you should be most afraid of.''

"First the sky will fall, second the economy will go to hell, third there will be some coalition that they keep inventing because there is no coalition.

"You can't treat the Canadian people this way. There's nothing to be afraid of in this country. This is Canada for heaven's sake, stop treating us like frightened children.''

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