VICTORIA - Oh, mother.

If Canadian voters needed any more proof the election has become a nailbiter, they need only listen to the normally private, phlegmatic Prime Minister Stephen Harper invoking his mother Margaret at every turn.

For the second day in a row, Harper repeatedly dropped references to his Calgary-based mom as he searched for the emotional sweet spot in reassuring a jittery public about global economic turmoil.

"We're getting this criticism that I somehow don't understand the stock market or I don't understand what people are feeling about the stock market," he said, in a colloquial tone, at a news conference Wednesday at a Victoria hotel.

"I use my mother as an obvious example because, you know, she's the person closest to me who's most worried about the stock market these days.

"And believe me, I get quicker updates from her on the stock market than I do from the Department of Finance."

Harper is famously private about his personal life and seldom invokes his parents -- although the prime minister did invite the news media to photograph him walking his daughter Rachel to school last week.

But with a raging credit crisis depressing world markets and battering Canada's manufacturing and resource-based economy, Harper's Conservatives have taken a steady downturn in public opinion in the run-up to next week's election.

Many have suggested that Harper's aloof, cerebral approach to the crisis may have cost him support, and he appears to be listening.

On Tuesday in Toronto, he used a speech to the Canadian Club to talk about his mother's stock market worries. He repeated the subject in television interviews, and then again Wednesday on the campaign trail.

"If you want good things to happen, you think ahead and you work hard," Harper said.

"That's what my mother and father always did. That's how we are trying to run the government of Canada."

For the hardworking, play-by-the-rules Tim Hortons crowd that the Tories have courted, it's sound advice during good times. Whether it salves public concern when job security is under threat is a more difficult question to assess.

Harper is walking a fine line between empathy and hard-headed pragmatism. He has repeatedly accused the opposition of "panicking" in the face of the stock market meltdown, but he has also shifted his message to give it the motherly touch.

"They are trying to use pessimism and panic to get people to choose things that are not in those people's interests," Harper said Wednesday of the opposition.

"Maybe I'm criticized because I will stand back. But surely to God, people want a prime minister who will stand back from panic in the market and make good decisions."

In that vein, Harper continued to roll out very modest policy announcements, filling in empty details from this week's belated Conservative campaign platform release.

If re-elected, the Tories would establish a $5-million fund to attract Canadian doctors working abroad and spend $10 million to establish 50 new residencies at teaching hospitals, Harper said.

He also promised $3 million over three years for a pilot project to explore ways to recruit and retain nurses.

The Conservative campaign is all about "realistic" options that wouldn't drive the country into deficit or cause widespread job losses, Harper said.