Stephen Harper added another coat of polish to Conservative promises on Monday as he entered the second week of the federal election campaign with a visit to an Ottawa spa and a pledge to help self-employed Canadians.

At Eurospa in Ottawa's east end, the Conservative leader announced that his party will give self-employed Canadians the chance to opt in to the employment insurance system, providing them with parental leave and other EI benefits.

"Ironically, self-employed Canadians who are successful and who create jobs must pay into the EI system on behalf of their employees, but cannot access those benefits themselves," said Harper.

"Their hard work and their determination are exactly what we need in our economy," Harper said. "We should allow them to pursue their dreams as entrepreneurs and as parents."

Unlike a similar program already in place in Quebec, the Conservative plan would be voluntary, he said.

The self-employed business owners who choose to participate could collect employment insurance or parental benefits once they had worked enough hours to qualify, even if their business collapsed.

$147-million plan would pay for itself

"It's difficult as an owner to try to figure out what to do when we had children," Eurospa owner Angela Macheado told reporters at the campaign event.

Macheado said she returned to work five days after having her last child.

The measure would cost $147 million a year, but would pay for itself once implemented, since it would be funded by EI premiums, the Conservatives say.

Harper at first seemed to suggest the proposal would apply only to biological children. But an aide later said that those who adopt would qualify for up to nine months of paid leave, compared to 12 for biological parents, as currently exists for others under EI policy.

Self-employed Canadians would be required to opt into EI premium at least six months prior to making a claim. Exact premium amounts and required payments post-claim would be set out upon implementation, a Conservative press release said.

Tories try to appeal to women

Observers said the announcement was aimed at women voters seen as key to the Tories gaining a majority in the Oct. 14 federal election.

But the Conservative leader dismissed questions about the timing of the announcement as the party tries to increase its support among women voters.

"I don't accept the criticism," Harper said. "This is a policy that responds to a real need."

Bruce Anderson, president of Harris-Decima Research, said urban women are "the single most important demographic probably in this election."

Harper has been on the opposite side of the "values gap" with female voters on issues such as the environment, war in Afghanistan and the Conservatives' scrapping of Liberal plans for national child care, said Anderson.

"The Conservatives, I think, have seen that and decided that they needed to take steps to try to overcome that. 

"Some of the steps they've been taking in terms of food safety, for example, have been aimed at providing a sense to that demographic that they get them. They get where they're coming from, they understand their anxieties and they have policies in mind to appeal to them."

Of the 2.6 million Canadians who work for themselves, nearly one million are women, according to 2007 statistics cited by the Conservatives.

Protesters greet Harper

Later in the day, Harper was greeted by protesters at an election stop in London, Ont. The demonstrators accused him of ignoring the faltering manufacturing sector and those affected by shutdowns and layoffs.

"All the well-paid jobs are turning into low-paid jobs with no benefits," Roy Jollymore, 63, a retired General Motors worker, said outside the London Convention Centre.

Speaking later inside a ballroom, Harper said he feels for people making the transition from one job to another.

"That's never easy and I don't want to minimize it, but we should never lose sight of how solid our fundamentals are and more importantly, how fortunate we are to live in this country," he said.

He then commented on a Haiti slum that he visited where people looked hopeless, in stark contrast to Canada, which he described as a land of "boundless hope."

"Ontario has a choice in this election," he told the partisan crowd. "We are the only party that will stay the course of lower taxes and prudent economic management."

Ontario has more than one-third of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. Of the 106 Ontario seats, the Liberals held 51 at dissolution and the Tories had 41. The NDP had 12 seats and two were vacant.

With files from the Canadian Press