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Canada votes, poised to reelect Conservatives

OTTAWA, Oct 14 - Canadians voted on Tuesday in an election that was likely to produce the third minority government in four years and give Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper a renewed mandate.

The 37-day campaign focus on who would be the best manager in troubled economic times intensified with the global turmoil, and polls showed voters sticking with Harper though his support came off the highs it reached a few weeks ago.

The last poll of the campaign, by Ekos, projected that he would increase his seat count in Parliament at the expense of the main opposition Liberal Party but would still be almost 20 short of the 155 needed for a majority.

Harper had offered only modest tax breaks and spending initiatives, arguing that a steady hand would get Canada through the turbulence that has hit world markets.

Liberal leader Stephane Dion, a bookish francophone who hesitates in English, found it difficult at a time of relatively high energy prices to sell his plan for a new carbon tax to fight climate change, accompanied by income tax cuts and subsidies for the poor.

He started to cut into Harper’s lead as he charged the prime minister was not doing enough to prevent financial contagion from spreading into Canada.

But the Conservative lead over the Liberals widened again in parallel with specific action taken to improve Canadian bank liquidity, and analysts said the market rebound this week will make voters more optimistic.

One of Dion’s problems is that he is competing with two other parties on the left nationally -- the New Democrats and the Greens -- and a fourth party, the separatist Bloc Quebecois in the province of Quebec.

“If we pool our votes together, we will win this election,” he said in a last-minute pitch on Monday.

The trouble is that the other parties are making similar pitches that they are the best one to deny Harper a second term. As a split on the right guaranteed Liberal rule from 1993-2006, a split on the left now helps the Conservatives.

The careers of at least Harper and Dion are potentially on the line. Dion was just named Liberal leader in December 2006 and if he loses, his party will be required to decide whether to replace him.

Harper said on the weekend that whichever leader loses will likely be replaced.

He also said that even if he only gets a second minority rather than a parliamentary majority, he will be in a stronger position than he had been 2 1/2 years into a minority mandate.

Harper had called the election in September on the grounds that the Parliament was deadlocked and that the others were threatening to topple him this autumn. Opposition parties usually give new governments a pass at the start of their mandates.

Canada has staggered voting hours across the country, running for 12 hours in each province and ending at 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT) in Newfoundland, 7:30 p.m. in Maritime provinces, 9:30 p.m. EDT from Quebec through Alberta and 10 p.m. EDT in British Columbia.