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Stephen Harper will be playing offence against Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff and Elizabeth May when the Pacific part of the federal election campaign officially gets under way. (David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)
Stephen Harper will be playing offence against Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff and Elizabeth May when the Pacific part of the federal election campaign officially gets under way. (David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)

The Tories' quest for a federal majority will lead them to B.C. Add to ...

Pundits and strategists who predict that the suburban ridings surrounding Toronto will determine the outcome of the next federal election should look west.

A clutch of key swing ridings in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island could boost Conservative prospects, handing Stephen Harper his much-coveted majority government. Or fortune could favour the Liberals or NDP.

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If we are indeed headed for a spring election, as appears increasingly likely, British Columbia as much as Ontario could decide the makeup of the next Parliament.

The fundamentals favour the Conservatives, who need 13 gains to form a majority government. In nine B.C. ridings where the incumbent won by a narrow margin in 2008, six are held by the Liberals and NDP; only three have a Conservative incumbent, and those incumbents enjoy decent, though not rock solid, pluralities. So if seats change hands, they're more likely to change from red or orange to blue.

On Vancouver Island, Liberal MP Keith Martin has decided not to run again, leaving Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca wide open. Dr. Martin would have had a fight on his hands had he decided to stay: He took the riding in the 2008 election by a paltry 68 votes.

But that margin is luxury, lad, sheer luxury, compared to Vancouver South, where former NDP premier and now Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh clung to office by a margin of 22 votes. By comparison, Sukh Dhaliwal's plurality of nearly 2,500 votes in Newton-North Delta is positively wanton, but that riding is also thought to be up in the air, as the Tories continue to make inroads among immigrant voters. (Twenty-four per cent of the riding's population arrived in Canada after 1991.)

Voters in all of these ridings should expect to see many visits by Mr. Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff during the campaign, and local television stations will be awash in revenues from political ads.

In B.C., voters often swing between the Conservatives and the NDP, bypassing the Liberals entirely. The New Democrats hold New Westminster-Coquitlam, but Dawn Black's plurality over the Conservatives in 2008 was less than 1,500 votes. When she moved to provincial politics, Fin Donnelly took the by-election by more than 3,400 votes, but the riding is nonetheless considered up for grabs.

Bill Siksay held on to Burnaby-Douglas by less than 800, and is stepping down. And Don Davies is no sure thing in Vancouver-Kingsway, with a plurality of just under 2,800 votes. NDP Leader Jack Layton will also be visiting B.C. often during the campaign.

The Liberals believe the core Conservative vote is so entrenched that they have little hope of eroding it. Their strategy is to convince wavering NDP voters to come over to them to prevent yet another Conservative victory. If the law of unintended consequences kicks in, however, the Liberals could bleed enough NDP votes in their most vulnerable ridings to hand those ridings over to the Conservatives.

But the same principle could work in the Liberals' favour in Saanich-Gulf Islands. Gary Lunn, the Sports minister, led the Liberals by 2,625 votes there in 2008, and the success of the Vancouver Olympics over which he presided should boost his prospects

Elizabeth May has staked her future as leader of the Green Party by taking on Mr. Lunn. Even if she does not prevail, she could drain enough votes to make the outcome unpredictable.

The Conservatives are most vulnerable in Surrey North, where Dona Cadman has a narrow cushion of 1,106 votes, and in Vancouver Island North, where John Duncan will have to look to his knitting, having beaten the NDP by 2,497 votes.

But note: In the ridings where the Conservatives are vulnerable, their cushion is in the thousands; in ridings where the Liberals and NDP are vulnerable, their cushion is often in the hundreds, or even dozens.

Overall, Stephen Harper will be playing offence and Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton will be playing defence when the Pacific part of the election campaign officially gets underway.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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