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Liberal candidate for Parkdale-High Park, Gerard Kennedy canvasses in an apartment building on West Lodge Ave., Toronto April 28, 2011 (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Liberal candidate for Parkdale-High Park, Gerard Kennedy canvasses in an apartment building on West Lodge Ave., Toronto April 28, 2011 (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

election 2011

Battleground riding Parkdale-High Park just one of the city's many swing ridings Add to ...

The long, dark hallway of the May Robinson Apartments echoes with the dull thud of democracy. Candidate and foot-soldiers fan out, rapping knuckles on apartment doors as they try to rouse folks in this sweltering government-run retirement home.

A door creaks; a sliver of light spreads across the hall floor.

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"Sir, it's Gerard Kennedy," says the blue-blazered candidate. "Just coming by to say hi and see if you're coming out for the election."

"Yes, I am."

"Can we count on your vote then?"

"No, Ms. Nash of the NDP got it."

Mr. Kennedy makes an attempt to change his mind.

"Nope, Ms. Nash is the one for me this time around. There's no budging me."

The Liberal MP for Parkdale-High Park knew he would have to perform Herculean feats of door-knocking long before the election was called. His main opponent, Peggy Nash, held the riding from 2006 to 2008 and remains a popular figure in an area that, for a second straight election, may feature the fiercest battle between the Grits and NDP anywhere in the country.

The late campaign surge of NDP leader Jack Layton - along with Michael Ignatieff's popular decline - has cast even greater doubt over Mr. Kennedy's already uncertain prospects, possibly placing this swing riding at the vanguard of an NDP success story on election day.

A recent Forum Research Poll conducted for the Hill Times predicted that Ms. Nash will unseat one of the Liberal Party's star candidates.

"I thought Kennedy would hold his seat - until a few days ago. But now I think the scales are tipping towards Nash," said Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto professor specializing in Canadian politics. "In any case, the Conservatives don't have a chance. This is a choice between the left and the more left."

But Mr. Kennedy is used to bucking national trends. Stéphane Dion's clumsy 2008 leadership campaign was thought to be even more of a drag on local races than Mr. Ignatieff's is now. Yet Mr. Kennedy, coming off stints as a provincial education minister and federal Liberal leadership contender, prevailed, stealing away an NDP seat by a safe 7-per-cent margin.

Though Mr. Ignatieff pledged to campaign hard throughout the party's GTA stronghold this time around, Mr. Kennedy is frank in his assessment of the Liberal leader's local impact.

"The party stuff was not strong last time," he explains. "And this time it doesn't seem to be strong again. We don't get a lot of lift from the party, if you will. That's okay. Last time we surprised a few people. We were self-reliant then and we're self-reliant now."

He needs to be. Lawns are streaked with rows of orange signs, punctuated by the odd splash of red. They symbolize the drastic changes this community has undergone over the last two decades.

Provincially an NDP stronghold, Liberals and Conservatives jockeyed for federal supremacy here throughout the seventies and eighties, a rivalry that ended when vote-splitting between the Reform and the PC parties coincided with a wave of gentrification to erode right-wing support. As recently as 1993, the NDP barely cracked 9-per-cent support here. Ms. Nash's 2006 victory made her the first NDP candidate to represent the riding in Ottawa, as she tapped into the hordes of gentrifying newcomers who have largely supplanted the more conservative eastern Europeans that once dominated the area.

Recently, the demographics have shifted again. It's a riding that encompasses Parkdale, with its low-rent high-rise towers, newcomers and slightly scruffy creative types, but also the area surrounding High Park - a land of wide boulevards, huge old houses and established, well-off residents. With average home prices climbing well above $600,000, middle-class families, the bedrock of NDP support, are being squeezed out. "It is becoming increasingly unaffordable for new families coming into the area, but I don't know, I look around and I still see a lot of orange signs," said Ms. Nash, president of the national NDP and a negotiator for the Canadian Auto Workers, sitting amid the chaos of her bustling Dundas Street West campaign headquarters.

Her supporters agree. "It's not Mercedes or BMW wealth coming in," said 20-year resident Tom Pratt. "It's people driving Volvos, Japanese cars, the odd Prius. I don't see those as indicators of a right-wing shift. I'm certainly going NDP."

At all-candidates meetings, fired-up constituents have demanded to know about stances on social issues and green policies, such as the electrification of an airport rail line planned to run through the riding. Some groups have accused Mr. Kennedy of being absent on the issue. Many have also picked up on the negative tone of some NDP campaign literature that attacks Mr. Kennedy's voting attendance record in the House of Commons.

"What you have are two clear records to compare as Members of Parliament," said Ms. Nash. "We're not distorting it, we're not twisting it. My record is one of showing up in the community, showing up to vote, getting things done."

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