It was a rare, unguarded moment in a tightly controlled campaign before next week's elections that provided Canadians with a glimpse of their country's leader being taken aback and forced off message. 'If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you be?' was the tongue-in-cheek question asked by a reporter as Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited a produce warehouse in Winnipeg. Surrounded by carrots, potatoes and cabbages, Mr Harper appeared stumped by the question. 'I, uhhh ... I really don't know how to answer that one,' said the prime minister. 'I have a feeling that I can't win by answering that question.' Mr Harper, head of a rebuilt Conservative Party that against the odds stayed in power as a minority government for 21/2 years, was noticeably flummoxed, and answered after a brief pause. 'I would choose, if I had to instead, to be a fruit,' he concluded, smiling with relief at reaching an answer. 'Just what I am, sweet and colourful.' Even critics gave Mr Harper credit for his response and ability to poke fun at himself. Supporters applaud his steadiness and ability to stay the course. Polls place Mr Harper in the top spot among the four other national party leaders as being the most competent economic manager. But Mr Harper's major flaw - and one he acknowledges - is the perception he lacks empathy. 'I'm not the most emotionally expressive guy,' he told reporters. It is that failing in the final weeks of the campaign that has caused Mr Harper the greatest damage. Just as the Conservatives seemed ready to coast to a majority government, the global economic crisis that is hitting home in Canada has given the prime minister's opponents their biggest weapon - chiefly Mr Harper's perceived remoteness and detachment from Canadians. 'He doesn't understand the effect of the economic turmoil on Canadians' lives,' said Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, who is making gains in the polls before the election next Tuesday. Then in the last week of the campaign, during a television interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr Harper gave an answer so clearly damaging that the host made a point of asking him whether he was certain that was the impression he wanted voters to have. He was asked how to help Canadians who watched their portfolios fall by as much as 20 per cent in one week alone. Mr Harper said there were great buying opportunities now available. Until now, Mr Harper has had a fairly easy cruise through the campaign. His unwillingness to hit back at attacks from his opponents during televised debates was considered good for his image as prime minister. That's the message the Conservatives have been crafting ever since the global economic collapse overshadowed other issues. The message for voters is that Mr Harper would continue to keep Canada on a steady course. Before the financial turmoil became the top issue, David Laycock, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, said Mr Harper's message was to seal in his base support and make inroads on the support of his opponents. 'The Conservatives' policy of giving young offenders more serious jail time, those 'get tough on crime' messages were popular in British Columbia and Alberta,' Professor Laycock said. 'There's a substantial base of people who are attracted to that.' But Professor Laycock said Mr Harper stumbled when he said that support for the arts was elitist. While that may have solidified his conservative base, it hurt his chances in Quebec, where culture is held in high regard. If the Conservatives hoped to win a majority, they must make gains in Quebec, the second-most populated province behind Ontario. There were some indications that Mr Harper may have ignored Quebec since his numbers dropped there and refocused his campaign in Ontario and British Columbia. In some provinces, Mr Harper has had to do little campaigning because the Conservative support is so strong. In his home seat in Calgary, Alberta, Mr Harper has made few visits during the five-week campaign. It is in Calgary where Mr Harper, an economist by training, began his political career as an elected MP in the 1993 election as the Reform Party candidate. The western-based Reform Party started as a protest movement against the long-standing Progressive Conservative party, which ruled Canada in the 1980s. Mr Harper, who was born in Toronto and learned French as part of his bid to become prime minister, got his start by being one of the original founders of the Reform Party, which had its roots as an anti-establishment party. Mr Harper was the party's policy chief as it formulated its tough-on-crime and lower taxes agenda. After the Reform Party began establishing itself nationally and gained more political prominence, it eventually reconciled with the Progressive Conservatives under the new banner as the Conservative Party. That was just two years before Mr Harper, as the party's leader, won the minority government in 2006 - after a decade of Liberal rule made possible by the fracturing of the political parties in the right of centre. David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who was working as a writer in Canada during the time the Reform Party was forming, recalled being sent to Alberta to interview Mr Harper for an article about his political rise. After talking to him, Mr Frum said he wasn't convinced Mr Harper had what it took to be a politician. 'I came back and said, 'no story',' said Mr Frum, who is now associated with the conservative think-tank, the American Institute for Public Policy Research. 'Nobody who is as cold a fish as this guy is ever going anywhere.' Despite his earlier assessment, Mr Frum said the prime minister was an extraordinary political manager. The polls, however, show that Canadians consider Mr Harper the most secretive of the political party leaders - and some observers have drawn comparisons between the Canadian elections and the White House race. 'The problem that came up when we make comparisons with American leaders is that [Barack] Obama connects very well although it's unclear whether he's able to handle being the leader,' says pollster Mario Canseco of Angus Reid Strategies. 'People tend to trust Obama, he's very charismatic and people find him engaging. Harper never gets that. He's seen as too stuffy. That's why the Conservatives have commercials showing Harper in a sweater.' But the reason why the Conservatives led for most of the campaign, says Mr Canseco, is that even though Mr Harper is seen as 'stuffy', voters find him reliable. There is a disconnection, however, between reliability and reassurance and that appears to now be Mr Harper's biggest challenge in the final days of the campaign. He likes to govern, and was politically astute enough to keep a minority government in power longer than anyone anticipated. But whether or not he's liked well enough by voters remains to be seen on Tuesday.