TORONTO -- Unless every national poll here is amiss, what has been perhaps the world's winningest political party is heading for a humiliating defeat today.
Stephen Harper, 46, an economist and social conservative who is writing a history of ice hockey, appears poised to lead his Conservative Party to victory over Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal Party, something that seemed highly improbable a few weeks ago. The Liberals won the last four national elections, governing Canada for 13 years -- as the party did for three-quarters of the past century.
But whether a Harper victory would represent a seismic shift in a country that has long promoted itself as a beacon of social democracy and frequent critic of American foreign policy remains an open question. If he cannot muster a majority in the House of Commons, Harper might lead a weak, unstable government opposed by three left-of-center parties represented in Parliament.
Harper -- in a campaign largely free of ideology -- promised to cut the national sales tax, grant families child care for preschoolers and introduce mandatory prison sentences. He is a longtime member of the House of Commons, representing Alberta, and has a conservative record, but he steered clear in recent months of promising major changes to the national health insurance program.
The absence of strong ideological overtones would appear to make a Thatcherite-style revolution unlikely, even if there is a strong Conservative showing. Harper noted that judges appointed by Liberal governments and an appointed Senate filled with Liberals would serve as checks on his power.
"I'm basically a cautious person," Harper said in a recent speech. "I believe it's better to light one candle than to promise a million light bulbs."
A change in Ottawa would almost certainly bring, at the least, a warming of relations with Washington, which have been strained since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and have worsened over a series of recent trade disputes and Canadian moves to soften domestic drug laws.
Harper, while careful not to appear overly supportive of President Bush, has suggested he would reconsider Canada's refusal to join the American missile defense program. He has also promised to increase military spending, and make a bigger contribution to NATO and peacekeeping operations in places like Haiti and Afghanistan. But he also said recently that he had no intention of sending troops to Iraq.
Martin, a former finance minister and shipping executive, has tried to emphasize the Liberal government's stewardship of the strong national economy -- marked by low inflation and unemployment, a strengthening currency and a large budget surplus. He has promised to create a national child care program, expand aid grants to college students and ban handguns.
These are not unpopular stances, but the decline of Liberal fortunes is due less to any shift in Canadian public opinion than to two years of federal inquiries. Those investigations documented an embarrassing party money-laundering and campaign-finance scheme that had been designed to counter separatists after the close 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty.
Adding to the Liberal Party's troubles, in the middle of the campaign, federal police investigators announced that they were looking into reports of Liberal government leaks of tax information to friendly investors that had spurred a flurry of insider trading.
And in Quebec, once a bastion of Liberal support, the party's free fall quickened with the publication of a book documenting allegations that the federal government had laundered millions of dollars of illegal aid to a group opposing separatists during the referendum campaign.
In recent weeks, the Liberals tried to recover votes with advertisements linking Harper to Bush, who is unpopular in Canada, and suggestions in speeches that Harper would attempt to reverse the legalization of same-sex marriage and abortion rights.