Canada's Trudeau fights for survival as election is called amid scandal

Polls suggest Trudeau's Liberals and the opposition Conservatives are in a dead heat as Canadians prepare to go to the ballot box on Oct. 21.

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By Linda Givetash and Associated Press

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing a tough fight for re-election as he launched his campaign Wednesday amid a corruption scandal that risks tarnishing his once celebrated leadership.

Polls suggest Trudeau's Liberals and the opposition Conservatives are in a dead heat as Canadians prepare to go to the ballot box on Oct. 21. The stark shift from his stunning victory in 2015 follows a scathing report that charged him of breaching ethics rules by trying to influence a corporate legal case — a move that also prompted two key cabinet members to abandon his party.

The saga has given the Conservatives unexpected leverage going into the campaign, said Andrew MacDougall, with the London-based communications firm Trafalgar Strategy and former communications director to Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"They have a chance to turn that tie into a win," he told NBC News.

Trudeau launched his bid on Wednesday maintaining his party is choice for progressives, lauding policies that increased taxes for the wealthiest and the renegotiation a trade deal with the United States, while warning against Conservative policies of cuts and austerity.

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"Canadians have an important choice to make," Trudeau said. "Will we go back to the failed policies of the past or will we continue to move forward?"

Trudeau, a 47-year-old father of three, rose to power promising change after defeating former Conservative leader Stephen Harper, who ruled for nine years and was the most right-leaning prime minister in the country's history. But the Conservative's new, untested leader Andrew Scheer, 40, is running close in the polls.

"Trudeau at home now is fighting a race where he is to progressives just another politician now and not the wonder kid of 2015," MacDougall said.

The cause of his diminishing star power stems from one of the biggest scandals in Canadian political history, which arose when Trudeau's former attorney general said he improperly pressured her to halt the criminal prosecution of Quebec company SNC-Lavalin. Trudeau responded saying he was standing up for jobs that could have been lost if the company was convicted.

Trudeau has since admitted fault — but stopped short of apologizing — after being charged by the ethics commissioner of political interference in the legal case.

The scandal resurfaced this week when the newspaper The Globe and Mail published a story suggesting the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police were being blocked in their attempts to interview potential witnesses related to the matter because of cabinet confidence policies.

Scheer honed in on the issue on Wednesday, saying the Prime Minister had lost the moral authority to govern.

"Over the next five weeks I will be explaining the reasons why Justin Trudeau has lost that authority and our alternative plan," Scheer said at the launch of his election campaign.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marks the start of a federal election campaign in Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday.Patrick Doyle / Reuters

Despite the ongoing saga, independent research institute Angus Reid found that the Liberals are rebounding in the polls, reaching its highest level of support this year at 32 percent.

Not since 1935 has a government that won a majority of seats in Parliament in its first term lost power in the subsequent election in Canada.

Trudeau will need to win 170 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons in Parliament to win a majority, but a minority government is highly possible. In that scenario, either Trudeau or Scheer would have to rely on at least one opposition party, such as the left-leaning New Democrats or environment-focused Greens, to pass legislation.