Stephen Harper attempted to boost his party’s election chances with a whistle-stop tour through New Brunswick this week, promising compensation for victims of Agent Orange spraying and more spending for highways.

Harper campaigned in Fredericton and Tobique-Mactaquac, where Conservative candidates are working hard to unseat two prominent Liberals, Andy Scott and Andy Savoy.

In Fredericton, the Conservative leader promised to solve the most political highway project in the province as part of his national highways plan.

• FROM JAN 11, 2006: Harper pledges $2B for highways, borders

The provincial Tory government has been squabbling with the federal Liberal government about money for a bypass from Marysville in Fredericton – up the Nashwaak River to Route 8.

Premier Bernard Lord says Paul Martin has yet to solve the Route 8 problem and four other projects. “Unfortunately, I have not received an answer, nor a counteroffer from the current prime minister.”

Harper has pledged to set aside $2 billion to maintain the Liberal cities program and make improvements to highways. He said by 2010, Ottawa would spend $600 million a year on the program.

But he was vague about exactly where the money would be spent. “To upgrade those strategic New Brunswick highways that are part of our national highways system, and yes, that will include, for those who are wondering locally, that will include definitely a commitment to the highway project here in the greater New Brunswick and Saint John valley.”

Tobique-Mactaquac Liberal MP Savoy said last week that Ottawa was backing the Route 8 project, but the provincial government hasn’t agreed to kick in its share of the cost.

“There’s $7 million now on the table to build this road, that the provincial government can use and access to build this road. Not a promise. This isn’t a commitment for the future. It’s there now. It’s in the budget.”

But the New Brunswick premier says it’s not so. “In fact, the money has not been approved by the Treasury Board of the federal government and that’s why the current project has been stalled.”

While in New Brunswick, Harper also promised to provide medical testing and compensation to victims of toxic herbicide spraying by Canada’s armed forces at CFB Gagetown. The pledge was met with thunderous applause from about 300 Mike Allen supporters at a rally in Woodstock.

Hearings on spray programs at CFB Gagetown are set to resume in February. Ottawa has acknowledged that Agent Orange defoliant was used in the 1960s to clear training areas at CFB Gagetown, but the government has only acknowledged the harm caused by Agent Orange when it was sprayed on Gagetown in 1966 and 1967.

Despite the big promises from his leader, the Conservative candidate for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe says it’s not always easy selling his leader in the riding. Charles Doucet says some voters are still slow to warm up to Stephen Harper.

“You know I was actually the same way when I first got involved politically. I was cautious I guess about Mr. Harper. I wasn’t sure what he stood for and what kind of person he was.”

Doucet says now that he’s met the man, he’s convinced he’ll make a “fantastic” prime minister.

• CANADAVOTES 2006: More New Brunswick election coverage

St. Thomas University political scientist Tom Bateman says part of Harper’s problem in this region is that he doesn’t come across as warm and personable – something that stands out in the friendly Maritimes. “He is kind of a serious person on television and he is a policy wonk. He’s kind of an intellectual type and so there’s already some distance there before people even think about the substance of his remarks.”

In the 2004 election, the party elected just two Conservative MPs out of 10 New Brunswick ridings.