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Jack Layton's next steps Add to ...

The end is so close and the stars are aligned for Jack Layton, but nothing is certain, even at this late juncture of the campaign.

Polls suggest that after a half-century as a federal political party, his New Democrats are poised to sit in the seats allotted to Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

But broad support does not always translate to seats. What's needed is domination in individual ridings.

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The New Democrats know very well how it feels to see voters slip away in the final days of a campaign as a skittish electorate moves to a safer bet.

They are hoping that this election has taken the traditional safe bets - Liberals, Bloc Québécois - off the table.

Mr. Layton likes to talk about the day when he will run the country.

"Starting Tuesday morning , as your prime minister …" he said Wednesday in Winnipeg, before being interrupted by supporters' chants of "Jack, Jack!"

"Let me see if I can get this whole sentence out," he said. "As your prime minister, I will roll up my sleeves and get down to work with our team to give your family a break."

When he told voters during the 2008 campaign that he was running for PM, there was significant rolling of eyes. And winning this thing would still seem beyond reach.

But with some public-opinion surveys suggesting his party could take 100 seats, it's hard to blame NDP supporters for their euphoria. Even forming the Official Opposition would be a win for the NDP.

According to the most-recent Forum Research poll, Jack Layton's party enjoys the support of 31 per cent of those surveyed - only three points behind the governing Conservatives, who fell to 34 per cent from the 36-per-cent support the party gleaned as of April 21. The Liberals, having been reduced to third place in a slew of recent polls, dwindled to 22 per cent in this latest survey, while the Bloc Québécois remained unchanged at 6 per cent.

Nik Nanos, the president of Nanos Research, said the New Democrats do have a realistic chance to supplant the Liberals as the second-largest caucus in the House of Commons - "If their numbers hold up in Quebec."

Young voters in that province seem especially willing to give them a chance as they flee from the Bloc Québécois.

That support could be fleeting. It may not last to election day. And it may not result in the electoral landslide that some pollsters are predicting.

Parties can be undone by their opponents. And they can lose elections all by themselves.

Before the 2004 vote, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper lost the election in the final 72 hours when then-Liberal-leader Paul Martin unleashed a fear campaign that registered with key pockets of voters. And Mr. Harper's majority slipped away from him in 2008 after his own ill-timed words about funding to cultural programs, which turned Quebec voters against him.

Mr. Nanos does not believe the New Democrats will suffer blows from other parties.

"In terms of the NDP, it's pretty clear that they have been able to take sustained attacks from all the opposition parties and nothing has really stuck yet," Mr. Nanos said. "However, the biggest risk for the NDP right now is Jack Layton himself, that he says something or does something himself that could abate the NDP gains."

Mr. Layton is under a lot of pressure and electioneering creates fatigue, Mr. Nanos said. "Mistakes usually happen in the closing days of the campaign."

Mr. Layton has done his best to speak directly to the people who will decide his future. He has taken regular French lessons and now speaks in a folksy manner to Quebeckers.

He has created what Ian Capstick, his former spokesman, said are the main predicators of a win. He has MPs elected in all parts of the country to act as "coattails" for others, and he has convinced some Canadians - especially those in Quebec - that his candidates can emerge on top.

The party itself, however, is exercising caution.

Lorne Nystrom, who spent more than 30 years as a New Democratic MP, said there has been some chat within senior NDP ranks about the possibility of forming the Official Opposition, but not much.

"The campaign is being run by good professional people who have to keep their eye on the ball, who know that things can go down as fast as things come up and that you can have unexpected events," Mr. Nystrom said. "No one knows what's going to happen in the next five days. I've seen campaigns that turn in the weekend before the election."

Even so, Mr. Nystrom said he believes anything is possible.

"This is an election that is very difficult to read by any traditional means," he said. "There's never been a party grow so fast so quickly as the NDP, according to the polls."

Big surges tend to continue, Mr. Nystrom said, pointing to the advances made by John Diefenbaker, who unexpectedly took the Progressive Conservatives to victory in 1957, and Brian Mulroney, who did the same thing in 1984.

"The thing you have to careful about is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said of the Layton campaign. "Something's happened that has made things so right. So let's have more of the same."

.......

The candidates

Vacationers aside, some aspiring NDP MPs are taking things seriously - and have serious chances at winning their ridings

One NDP candidate has taken off to Las Vegas. Another spent the early part of the campaign vacationing in the Dominican Republic. But where the NDP has a serious chance of winning seats, its candidates and local campaigns also tend to be more serious.

New faces in the NDP caucus next week could include Nycole Turmel, the former president of the largest union of federal public servants, who is running in Hull-Aylmer. Former National Farmers Union president Nettie Wiebe could win a seat in Saskatoon.

One of the most likely NDP candidates to be elected from Quebec is Tyrone Benskin, an actor who is currently artistic director of Montreal's Black Theatre Workshop. Should the NDP keep rising in Quebec, the party should also have a chance of electing accomplished Cree leader and lawyer Roméo Saganash in Abitibi-James Bay-Nunavik-Eeyou.

Bill Curry

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