Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau -- who has slipped in the polls and faced angry protesters on the campaign trail, with one even throwing stones at him -- is struggling with less than two weeks to go before snap elections.
When he called the September 20 elections a few weeks ago, the 49-year-old Liberal Party leader was in a far better position.
At that point, Trudeau was ahead of Conservative leader Erin O'Toole in opinion surveys and hoped to ride his handling of the coronavirus pandemic to a third term.
But since that August 15 announcement, his campaign has stagnated and his hopes of returning at the head of a majority government seem difficult to fulfill.
On Monday, Trudeau suffered a fresh indignity -- as he was leaving an event in London, a city southwest of Toronto in Ontario province, he faced a crowd of protesters angry over proposed mandatory coronavirus vaccines and other crisis measures.
Someone threw what appeared to be a handful of gravel at him, television footage showed. No one was injured.
"Yes, I felt some of that gravel," Trudeau confirmed Tuesday.
Some protesters "were practically foaming at the mouth, they were so mad at me," he said, adding: "It is absolutely unacceptable that people (would) be throwing things and endangering others at a political rally."
The incident -- which comes during a crucial campaign week with two scheduled debates that could tip the election scales -- drew condemnation from Trudeau's rivals, O'Toole and New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh.
"Political violence is never justified," O'Toole tweeted late Monday, while Singh said: "It is not acceptable to throw objects at anyone. Ever. No matter how angry you are. And, it's never ok to try to intimidate people who don't agree with you -- or the media."
- Slip in the polls -
Trudeau is now in a statistical dead heat with O'Toole, with 34 percent support for the Liberals and 32 percent for the Tories, according to a Nanos survey released Tuesday -- a difference that is within the poll's margin of error.
The prime minister has faced off on several recent occasions with what he described as "anti-vaxxer mobs" and "a small fringe element in this country that is angry, that doesn't believe in science."
Protesters have shouted racial and misogynist slurs at his entourage.
Demonstrations also targeted hospitals across Canada that are struggling with a sudden spike in Covid cases, and candidate lawn signs have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.
In late August, Trudeau was forced to cancel an event over security concerns.
- Ultimate boost for Liberals? -
So far, Trudeau has pledged not to allow so-called "fringe" groups "to dictate how this country gets through this pandemic."
And Felix Mathieu, a politics professor at the University of Winnipeg, said the angry protests and Trudeau's pushback might actually benefit the Liberals, who stumbled in the early days of the campaign.
Although O'Toole has promoted the use of vaccines, "his party remains widely associated with those who vehemently oppose vaccines and Covid containment measures," Mathieu told AFP.
That allows Trudeau to present himself as a defender of public safety, especially as he steps up criticisms of the Tories' rejection of mandatory vaccines, Mathieu explained.
More than 83 percent of those Canadians eligible to get a coronavirus vaccine (12 years or older) have received one dose and 76 percent are fully vaccinated, according to government data.
The Liberal plank proposes mandatory jabs for public servants and travellers on trains, planes and buses.
It also earmarks Can$1 billion (US$800 million) to stitch together a patchwork of provincial vaccine passports.
Pollster and former political strategist Tim Powers said the violent protests are "concerning."
"The pandemic has intensified people's manner of anger and the way they express anger," Powers told AFP.
"There are a lot of people who are very frayed and beaten down by the pandemic, and campaign events provide an opportunity for some people to showcase their discontent," he said, adding a warning: "Who knows what can happen in these sorts of circumstances."
But Powers said he agrees that the protests are "providing the Liberals with a useful political prop," allowing Trudeau to be seen fighting against anti-vaccine groups who might threaten a quick post-pandemic return to normalcy -- just as Canadians are heading back to classes and offices.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)