Who will finish third?

With the next federal election just two months away, this is a first look at the party standings, top-of-mind issues and how the leaders are performing.

Of course, polling numbers eight weeks out provide, at best, only limited guidance. Nevertheless, with that in mind, here is where things sit today.

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At the party level, the Conservatives lead, on average, by one percentage point over the Liberals, 34 to 33. This is a considerable narrowing of the race. In mid-June the Tories were up by six.

The NDP stands third at 14 per cent, a drop of five points since mid-July, and the Greens remain steady at 11.

We're not going to include the Bloc Qubcois or Maxime Bernier's People's Party, since neither, at present, appears a factor. That could change, of course.

The standing of the leaders is more difficult to read. For most of 2019, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has run ahead of Andrew Scheer, his Tory opponent. On average, Trudeau leads Scheer by about seven points.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has had a terrible summer, with his approval rating hovering around nine per cent and dropping. Elizabeth May, the Green leader, matches Singh's numbers, but this is misleading.

During the 2015 election, the NDP took 19.7 per cent of the vote, and the Greens, 3.5 per cent. Clearly, under May's direction, the Greens have improved their standing. Equally, NDP support has fallen under Singh.

The state of party finances to some extent matches the polling numbers. During the second quarter of 2019, the Tories raised $8.5 million, the Liberals $5 million, the Greens $1.44 million and the NDP $1.43 million. It's never clear to what extent money plays a role in election campaigns. The Tory lead, though not to be dismissed, might not matter in the end.

But the eye-opener here is the success of the Greens in out-raising the NDP. Here again, there are ominous signs for Singh and his party.

Top-of-mind issues are harder to tie down. Polling earlier in the year put climate change in top position. Health care came second, the economy third, and deficit/ government spending fourth. Immigration/refugees and taxes tied for fifth place.

Some of this may have to do with the prominence given to respective issues in news reports. Climate change, due in part to constant skirmishing over pipelines, has dominated the news cycle for most of the year.

But when it comes time to cast a vote, bread and butter concerns such as housing affordability, job retention and family finances often come to the fore.

There is also the question of trust. Justin Trudeau began his time as prime minister with a huge lead over the other party leaders in this field. He was widely seen as honest, forthcoming, and well-intentioned.

Of course, honeymoons never last. But if the Liberals have a weak point, it centres on his squandering of that asset.

His latest self-inflicted wound came with his refusal two weeks ago to apologize for breaching the Conflict of Interest Act. Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion had brought down a scathing report on Trudeau's efforts to bully his former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Wilson-Raybould wanted a legal action brought against the Quebec-based firm SNC Lavalin. Trudeau tried to pressure her into dropping the matter, and when she refused, demoted her. This was a clear breach of the principle that politics should play no part in prosecutorial decisions.

By refusing to apologize, Trudeau broke one of the basic rules of politics: stop digging when you find yourself in a hole. It remains to be seen what effect, if any, that has on his popularity.

However, if there is a light on the horizon here, it lies in the weakness of Trudeau's main opponents. Scheer has been almost invisible since his election to the leadership in May 2017. His French is ropey and he is the second Conservative leader in a row from Western Canada, not a strong point in Quebec.

And Jagmeet Singh has struggled with almost all the tasks of leadership - fundraising, party building, preserving good caucus relations and political adroitness.

Rarely has a prime minister been so fortunate in his opponents.

Eight weeks is a long time in politics. But if there is anything to conclude so far, it is that the real drama in this election may lie in which party comes third.

As the conscience of the country, the NDP have long held that position. If they lose it to the Greens, a major revolution will have occurred in Canadian politics.

-- Victoria Times-Colonist

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