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Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff arrive at a reception in Toronto on April 27, 2011. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff arrive at a reception in Toronto on April 27, 2011. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Chrétien rallies Liberal troops in bid to shore up Fortress Toronto Add to ...

When Jean Chrétien made his first campaign appearance Wednesday night, to bolster the hopes of high-profile MP Ken Dryden, the crowd greeted his arrival with a roar unheard by any Liberal since he was prime minister.

Mr. Dryden is in trouble. He could lose his seat Monday, with Stephen Harper's Conservatives threatening to breach the Liberals' Fortress Toronto.

So Mr. Ignatieff brought Mr. Chrétien, the last successful Liberal leader, to the riding.

"The Canadiens needed Ken Dryden. Today, Canada needs Ken Dryden," Mr. Chrétien told the crowd in a speech to rally the troops.

The Liberals are counting on those troops to deliver victory through their ground game even though the polls say the party is on the brink of a historic defeat.

It is now virtually certain that the Liberals will, for the first time in their history, lose three consecutive elections under three leaders, and might well finish in the third place.

More than just dooming Mr. Ignatieff as leader, the Liberals are in danger of becoming a party without a base.

The idea of the opposition combining to defeat a Conservative minority government on its throne speech and installing Mr. Ignatieff as prime minister must now be rewritten with NDP Leader Jack Layton in the starring role.

There may be nothing the party can do at this point to recover, other than keep Mr. Ignatieff campaigning as hard as he can and with as positive as message as he can deliver, such as the one he delivered in Sault Ste. Marie Wednesday.

"Come back into the centre," he implored, "you know where you are with us."

While he acknowledged "we share objectives with the NDP," he described the New Democrats' platform as "a wish list."

Canadians, he predicted, would ultimately choose the Liberals because they are a party that "has actually governed the country, and governed it well."

But few appear to be listening. And the party's grim decline in the polls prompts an important question: Where exactly are Liberals to be found?

The party has been largely been shut out of Western Canada since John Diefenbaker's 1958 landslide. The Liberals lost French Quebec to Brian Mulroney in 1984, which the Bloc Québécois inherited in 1993.

And in the last three elections, Mr. Harper steadily has eroded its remaining bastion of southern Ontario. With almost everything outside greater Toronto lost to them, and with the Conservatives threatening to broach the city itself, the Liberals may only be able to count on downtown Toronto, English-speaking Montreal and a few outposts in Atlantic Canada and elsewhere.

The Liberals refuse to admit they're licked. Mr. Ignatieff insists that the party will win on the ground thanks to passionately committed supporters. There is little else he can say.

At Wednesday night's rally, Mr. Chrétien skewered the Conservatives for proposing "planes without engines and jails without prisoners," but limited himself a single reference to Mr. Ignatieff, calling him "somebody who has a team, somebody who has a real program … somebody who will make a good prime minister of Canada."

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