OTTAWA - Most Canadians believe the federal Conservatives spent more money than they were legally allowed during the last election, a new poll suggests.

Fifty-eight per cent of respondents told The Canadian Press/Harris-Decima survey they don't believe the Tories' insistence that they did nothing wrong. Only 26 per cent found the Conservative defence to be believable.

Doubts about the veracity of the ruling party's response to the affair were most pronounced in British Columbia (62 per cent), Quebec (62 per cent) and Ontario (59 per cent) - the three most populous provinces that will determine the outcome of the next election.

Also, 33 per cent of respondents said they believe that if the allegations are true, the illegal overspending would have been a decisive factor in the Conservatives' minority victory in the 2006 vote. Fifty-six per cent did not believe it would have been a factor.

The telephone poll of just over 1,000 Canadians was conducted April 24-28, amid the continuing uproar over the RCMP raid on Conservative party headquarters. It is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

Elections Canada called for the raid, alleging that the Conservative party funnelled money through local candidates so it could exceed its national spending limit and allow candidates to claim rebates on advertising expenses they didn't actually incur.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists that the governing party has abided by the law. He and other Conservatives contend that their party has been targeted unfairly by Elections Canada for campaign spending practices that are legal and commonly employed by all parties.

Harper's problems on the issue extend to his own supporters, according to the poll. Twenty-nine per cent of respondents who identified themselves as Conservative backers said they don't find the party's response to be believable.

Harris-Decima president Bruce Anderson said the poll results are bad news for Harper's Conservatives as they struggle to establish a firm lead over the Liberals and capture enough additional support to win their coveted majority.

"Whether this issue has real substance or staying power remains to be seen," Anderson said.

"However, given the virtual stalemate that the Conservatives and the Liberals are locked in, where every percentage point of support matters, it is unhelpful to the Conservatives."

The poll also suggests the affair has drawn more attention from Canadians and caused more damage to the party's popularity than the furor late last year surrounding revelations that former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney accepted envelopes stuffed with cash from arms lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber.

Twenty-one per cent of respondents said they've been following the election financing story closely; another 48 per cent said they've heard about it. By comparison, only 10 per cent said they were closely following the Mulroney-Schreiber story in a survey taken last December.

Moreover, 29 per cent said the election spending allegations and the way they've been handled have made them feel worse about the Conservative government. Only 16 per cent reported feeling similarly repulsed last December by the Mulroney-Schreiber affair.

The central events of the Mulroney-Schreiber affair took place some 15 years ago when Harper was still a member of the Reform party. But Anderson noted that the election spending allegations occurred entirely on Harper's watch and, as such, have "some potential to undermine the credibility of the new Conservative party . . . in a way that the Mulroney-Schreiber issue does not."

That may explain why Liberal Leader Stephane Dion tried Wednesday to pin the controversy directly on Harper, repeatedly asking whether the prime minister approved the so-called in-and-out scheme for financing election ads.

Harper did not directly respond to those questions.

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