Stephane Dion's honeymoon with voters may be over. A new poll suggests fewer than one fifth of Canadians think he would make a good prime minister, as the parties gear up for a possible spring election.

"I think his problem is that he's not known," Tim Woolstencroft of The Strategic Counsel told on Monday.

"He clearly has not created an image for himself, and the Conservatives are in there trying to define his image and his leadership, and that's a challenge for him."

Following the release of Tory attack ads aimed directly at Dion, just 18 per cent of respondents thought the Liberal leader would do the best job as prime minister, compared to 36 per cent for Stephen Harper.

The Strategic Counsel conducted the survey between Feb. 15-18, for CTV News and The Globe and Mail.

Woolstencroft said Dion's numbers may improve as he boosts his political profile across the country. He also added that Harper would have received similar results in 2004, just after he became leader of the Conservative party.

But when asked how respondents would vote today, the Liberals showed a significant drop since Dion first won his party's leadership race (percentage-point change from a Dec. 3 poll in brackets):

  • Liberals: 29 per cent (- 8)
  • Conservatives: 34 per cent (+ 3)
  • NDP: 14 per cent (none)
  • Bloc Quebecois: 11 per cent (none)
  • Green Party: 12 per cent (+ 5)

"This is clearly the first significant piece of evidence we've seen that suggests the Tories have a good foundation to move forward with a spring election," said Woolstencroft.

"But keep in mind we still have to see some more movement. Right now, those numbers would by and large replicate what we got in the last election."

He added that the Conservatives likely need 38 or 40 per cent to win a majority government, and it's unclear if the latest poll indicates a growing trend.

Harper has also been unable to generate much more support in Ontario and Quebec.

"This is far from a slam dunk for Harper," said Woolstencroft. "There is a tremendous amount of ambivalence in Quebec and Ontario, with the numbers suggesting he is not close to a deal with (voters)."

In Ontario, the difference is just two per cent, less than the five per cent margin of error for the province's sample size (for details see 'Technical notes' below). Here are the results (percentage-point change from a Dec. 3 poll in brackets):

  • Liberals: 39 per cent (- 9)
  • Conservatives: 34 per cent (+ 2)
  • NDP: 14 per cent (- 1)
  • Green Party: 13 per cent (+ 8)

A spring election could still be triggered if the opposition parties vote against the government's upcoming federal budget. And according to Robert Fife, CTV's Ottawa bureau chief, there's another plausible scenario.

"All three opposition parties have just passed a bill demanding that the government meet the Kyoto targets, even though they know it's impossible to meet and could harm the economy," said Fife.

"All Stephen Harper has to do is present his own environmental plan that's credible, put some money into it with some targets, make it a confidence vote, and bingo -- he's trapped the opposition parties."

The best prime minister

Dion, an environmentalist who famously named his dog Kyoto, has made tackling climate change a major issue for his party.

But the poll hints that Canadians do not consider his plan much more effective than that offered by the Conservatives:

  • Liberals: 23 per cent
  • Conservatives: 20 per cent
  • NDP: 21 per cent
  • Bloc Quebecois: 6 per cent
  • Other/don't know/refused: 31 per cent

And on national unity, an issue which first earned Dion his political reputation, he trails Harper. Of those polled, 35 per cent felt Dion was most able to promote the cause, compared to 44 per cent for Harper.

Meanwhile, when asked which party leader had the clearest vision of where he wants to take the country, Harper showed a significant lead over his rivals (percentage-point change from a Dec. 3-4 poll in brackets):

  • Stephen Harper: 50 per cent (+ 18)
  • Stephane Dion: 22 per cent (- 16 from when Paul Martin was leader)
  • Jack Layton: 20 per cent (+ 1)
  • Gilles Duceppe: 8 per cent (- 4)

More than half of respondents also felt that Harper is the most decisive of the party leaders.

  • Harper: 53 per cent
  • Dion: 19 per cent
  • Layton: 20 per cent
  • Duceppe: 8 per cent

Dion also lost out on charisma, which he himself defended shortly after becoming leader of his party.

"I would not have been able to win this race if I had not been able to connect with Canadians ... I have a capacity to communicate with passion and with reason," he said last December.

But respondents seem to have felt otherwise in the poll. Here are the results when voters were asked who was the most charismatic (percentage-point change from a Dec. 3-4 poll in brackets):

  • Harper: 35 per cent (+ 18)
  • Dion: 20 per cent (- 9 from when Martin was leader)
  • Layton: 36 per cent (- 2)
  • Duceppe: 10 per cent (- 4)

Meanwhile, Deputy Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and his supporters are enjoying a high profile during question period, frustrating other Liberal MPs, according to Fife.

"They're saying, 'Who's the leader? Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff? The Liberal caucus is starting to come apart at the seams," he said.

Technical notes

  • Results are based on tracking among a proportionate national sample of Canadians 18 years of age or older.
  • Interviews were conducted between Feb. 15 and Feb. 18, 2007.
  • The national sample size is 1,000. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
  • The Ontario sample is 379. The margin of error is 5.0 percentage points.

With a report by CTV's Robert Fife in Ottawa