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Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe speaks to reporters during a campaign stop in Montreal, Tuesday, April 26, 2011. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe speaks to reporters during a campaign stop in Montreal, Tuesday, April 26, 2011. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Bloc struggles to rise above wave of NDP support Add to ...

Few have considered Drummond a bellwether riding since the Bloc Québécois settled in for the long haul in 1993, but there's nothing normal about this federal election in Quebec, where polls have consistently put the New Democratic Party in first place.

NDP support has risen in mirror image to the decline of the Bloc, whose Leader, Gilles Duceppe, has led a morose campaign increasingly limited to areas once considered safe Bloc territory.

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On Wednesday, Mr. Duceppe heads to Drummondville, about 100 kilometres northeast of Montreal, to try to shore up his defence against the unthinkable. The federal riding that includes the small city has a population that is 97-per-cent francophone. The area voted 57 per cent in favour of sovereignty in 1995.

If a riding like Drummond goes NDP Monday night, then anything can happen across the province.

If there is an orange wave forming in Quebec, Denise Boisvert is riding the crest. A painter and nursing instructor from Saint-Nicéphore, on the outskirts of Drummondville, she intends to vote NDP for the first time.

"It's more about Jack Layton," said Ms. Boisvert, a mother of five children. "He seems like someone you can trust. He has a positive message you can get behind.

"Keep in mind, this is not from some detailed research on his platform. We need change, and it's not Michael Ignatieff or the Bloc who will deliver it."

Vicky Meloche, 21, works at a local corner store called the Dépanneur St-Jean in Drummondville. This will be only the second time she will vote in a federal election, and, like many people her age, she remains undecided. But she appears sympathetic to Mr. Layton.

"I voted for the Bloc Québécois the last time, but this time I'm not really sure what I will do," Ms. Meloche said. "People here don't seem all that excited by the campaign. Yet there seems to be some attraction for the NDP."

The NDP surge sweeping Quebec has left Bloc insiders and more independent observers perplexed. No one knows for sure if it will translate into many seats or just split Bloc votes to the benefit of the other two main parties.

"We can feel the political situation changing. But nobody seems to be able to measure it," Gérard Martin, a reporter for the Drummondville weekly L'Express Hebdo. "We sense that people want to vote for Jack even though the NDP has not really been present in the campaign and we've hardly seen the local candidate here at all."

Bloc campaign organizers lament that Mr. Duceppe failed to rally his sovereigntist base long before bringing Jacques Parizeau into the campaign Monday. While Mr. Duceppe was stung by criticism by former Bloc MP Suzanne Tremblay that he is running a dour and "frightful" campaign, top party officials say they've been aware of the problem for some time now.

Mr. Duceppe's strategy of relying on the failings of the federalist parties and hiding the sovereigntist option was bound to fail eventually, said one top Bloc official, a staunch sovereigntist who spoke on condition of anonymity.

On the ground, the Bloc's local organization admitted it was having a hard time gauging the sudden rise of NDP support. Local Bloc campaign organizer Yves Samson said he was perplexed: Public opinion polls indicate an increase in NDP support, but on the ground, in door-to-door encounters with voters, he insists the movement is less spectacular.

"It's difficult to grasp. … It's really a strange phenomenon," Mr. Samson said. "We can count on a strong organization to get the vote out and we will be relying heavily on that, something the NDP won't be able to match."

The NDP's rise in Drummond is not entirely out of nowhere, and may be emblematic of the rise across the province. The NDP drew 423 votes (about 1 per cent) in 2000. Under Mr. Layton's watch, the party rose to 6.3 per cent in 2006 and 16.8 per cent in 2008, setting the stage for the potential of a four-way race.

Meanwhile, Conservative growth stagnated, leaving the party in second place, while the Bloc vote eroded from 56 per cent in 2004 to 38.8 per cent in 2008.

The Parti Québécois member from the provincial riding of Drummond, Yves-François Blanchet, remained cautious over the potential change in voter allegiance. He maintains no major shifts are taking place.

Mr. Blanchet was in Saint-Lambert on Monday to hear former premier Parizeau urge his party to get out and support the Bloc on May 2. The urgency of Mr. Parizeau's call to arms may have fallen on deaf ears.

Instead of heading out on the hustings, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois has a taken vacation and won't be back until Saturday.

With a report from Daniel Leblanc in Montreal

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