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Canadian Government Poised for Leadership Change

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Canadians are voting in a national election today and they're expected to have a new prime minister by tomorrow morning. All the polls show the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin is on the way out. He'll likely be replaced by Stephen Harper, who heads that country's Conservative Party. As Richard Reynolds reports from Toronto, it's a major shift in Canadian politics.

RICHARD REYNOLDS: Canada and the U.S. have many things in common, but electoral politics isn't one of them. Elections here are short and intense. This one wasn't even called until eight weeks ago, after the minority liberal government fell in a no confidence vote. In that time, the Conservative Party rose about 20 points in the polls. According to most analysts, they went from being considered certain losers, to being considered certain winners.

Observers say that the Conservative Party head and likely next Prime Minister Stephen Harper, led a masterful, very focused campaign. Andrew Coyne is a political columnist with the National Post newspaper.

ANDREW COYNE: I think the phrase is staying on message, and he had been very focused, particularly in the debates, which I think he won handily. And he won them not in the way perhaps that we in the punditocracy score them of who scored knock out blows and all of that nonsense, but because he looked at the camera and told them people what he would do.

REYNOLDS: In contrast, Coyne says that Harper's primary opponent, Prime Minister Paul Martin, ran a campaign that was unfocused and ineffective. Coyne says that Martin tried to make the campaign about Harper, but Harper didn't play along. In one widely criticized ad on their website, the liberal party tried to portray Harper as an extremist.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIBERAL WEBSITE AD)

Unidentified Woman: Stephen Harper actually announced he wants to increase military presence in our cities. Canadian cities. Soldiers with guns. In our cities. In Canada. We did not make this up.

REYNOLDS: After a few days, the liberal party itself, portrayed as too extreme by the Canadian media, was forced to take the ad off its website. The party's platforms aren't really all that different on many issues. Both offer tax cuts, both promise to reduce wait times for access to Canada's national healthcare scheme, and both promise to ban handguns. Besides the ads and the campaign promises, there's also the tired factor. Polls show that a large percentage of Canadians simply want change. The liberal party has been in power for 13 years. Martin has only been prime minister since 2003, but his time in office was overshadowed by a liberal party kickback scandal.

Certainly, Harper should have a warmer relationship with the Bush administration than has Martin. On many of the key issues that have divided the U.S. and Canada in recent years, Harper's position has echoed the White House's.

For NPR News, I'm Richard Reynolds in Toronto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Reynolds