* Expenses scandal hits Conservatives' support in rural
* Opposition Liberals resurgent under Trudeau leadership
* Four seats contested in Monday's special election
By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA, Nov 25 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen
Harper's ruling Conservatives only narrowly held onto what had
been viewed as a safe seat in a district election on Monday
after a scandal over Senate expenses hit his party's support.
The Conservatives' slim margin of victory also underlined
the resurgence of the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau, the
41-year-old son of the flamboyant late prime minister Pierre
Elliott Trudeau, who took over the party leadership in April.
The Conservatives' near-defeat in the rural western Canadian
province of Manitoba in the special election for the House of
Commons will prompt soul-searching in the party, which has held
the seat for 56 of the last 60 years, mostly by huge margins.
Harper has been tarnished by a scandal over housing and
other expenses claimed by Conservative senators and by an
apparent subsequent attempt to cover it up.
The Liberals suffered their worst-ever showing in the last
general election in 2011, when they took only fourth place in
the Manitoba riding of Brandon-Souris. But under Trudeau, it has
catapulted into first place in national polls and came within
one percentage point of taking Brandon-Souris on Monday night.
It was one of four districts contested in special elections
on Monday, with the Liberals holding on to two they had been
defending and the Conservatives keeping two they had held.
In Toronto, Trudeau had handpicked a former Thomson Reuters
senior editor, Chrystia Freeland, who was parachuted in to
contest a seat vacated by former Liberal interim leader Bob Rae.
She beat fellow journalist Linda McQuaig of the left-leaning New
Police said last week they believed Harper's former chief of
staff, Nigel Wright, was guilty of bribery in corruptly giving
C$90,000 ($86,000) of his own funds to a senator to help him pay
his expense money back to the government.
Wright says he believes he acted lawfully within the scope
of his duties. Harper said no one told him of Wright's payment
and he would have vetoed it if he had been told ahead of time.
Trudeau, a former high school teacher and snowboard
instructor, has had his share of troubles, but he has managed to
maintain some buzz and in Monday's races eclipsed the official
opposition New Democrats on his left.
With echoes of U.S. President Barack Obama's campaigns, he
has used a slogan of hope and proclaimed his devotion to the
middle class despite his wealth and upper-class upbringing.
He took over the left-leaning Liberal Party, which favours
more action on tackling climate change, after it took just 34 of
308 seats in the House of Commons in the 2011 election.
The Conservatives, who favour lower taxes and a tough stance
on crime, have attacked Trudeau for not having decided on an
economic platform, for promoting the legalization of marijuana
and for saying he admired China's political system the most of
any country outside Canada.
Harper took the unusual step of sending a letter to each
voter in Brandon-Souris to point out the dangers of going for
Trudeau and many cabinet ministers campaigned in the district.
It was a mixed result for the New Democrats, who had swept
into the position of Official Opposition in 2011 in a vote of
enthusiasm for the positive spirit of then-leader Jack Layton,
who died shortly after the election.
They had no breakthroughs on Monday night, and while they
increased their percentage in Toronto, they performed much worse
in Brandon-Souris, Manitoba.