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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks to reporters at a news conference in Toronto. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks to reporters at a news conference in Toronto. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Liberals, NDP take aim at Harper but are gunning for each other Add to ...

In rhetoric delivered to inspire their supporters and win over voters, Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton have both painted Stephen Harper as their prime political target.

But their words and their actions seem to tell a different story.

In the first three days of the 2011 campaign, the Liberal Leader has taken his plane to ridings that are held by New Democrats.

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And on Tuesday, Mr. Layton will repay the favour, heading to Brant and Kitchener, Ont., where the Liberals have always enjoyed good support even if they were not victorious on election night in 2008.

If the hope is to hold the Conservatives to a minority - which would seem to be the most realistic aspiration for either of the former opposition parties at this juncture - would it not make more sense to go directly after Conservatives?

And if the Liberals and the New Democrats split the centre-left vote, does it not just open the door for a third-place Conservative to sneak up the centre?

"It is probably not a good strategy if the aim is to get enough seats so the Conservatives do not get a majority," said Robert Drummond, a professor of political science at York University in Toronto.

This may just be the plan for the early days of the campaign, said Prof. Drummond. Perhaps, he said, it is an effort on the part of the Liberals and the New Democrats to convince voters that they really have no interest in forming a coalition to usurp power should the Conservatives win a minority.

But it is certainly possible, he said, that there are seats where a tough three-way battle could see the Conservative win by a divided left.

On the other hand, said Prof. Drummond, the Liberals have probably looked at the electoral map and decided that they must also take some seats from the New Democrats to keep the Conservatives at bay.

Party strategists will not talk on the record. But the Liberals say taking NDP seats is very much a part of their game plan.

They say they need to polarize the electorate - to convince all voters who do not support Stephen Harper that, if they vote for the NDP, they will end up with a Conservative MP.

There is no safe NDP seat, said one official pointing to the loss in a recent by-election of Winnipeg North, a riding that had been held for many years by New Democrat Judy Wasylycia-Leis.

That is why the Liberals have made a dash out of the starting gate for constituencies like Outremont in Montreal, Ottawa Centre and Trinity Spadina in Toronto, all NDP seats.

"We have to squeeze down the vote," said one Liberal party official.

NDP Leader Jack Layton scoffs at the strategy.

"This is the old attitude of 'we're the only game in town,'" he said at a news conference on Monday.

When asked about voters who will put their X beside the name of the Liberal candidate simply to stop Stephen Harper, Mr. Layton said: "The way to stop Stephen Harper from getting a majority is to take Conservative seats, one by one, and defeat the MPs who are there. That's how you stop Mr. Harper from getting majority."

But the NDP is also preparing to go after constituencies where a Liberal might have a better shot if there was no strong competition on the left.

One of them is Brant, west of Hamilton, which is currently held by a Conservative but was Liberal for many years. Mr. Layton will visit there today.

He will undoubtedly repeat his message that the only way to defeat a Conservative is with a vote for his party.

"This is battleground Ontario," said one NDP official, explaining the decision to go to a seat where the New Democrat candidate was a distant third in 2008 and the Liberal incumbent was only barely defeated.

Just as in Quebec and British Columbia, he said, there is a lot of volatility and the New Democrats want to make a "footprint" in the region.

The NDP has a story to tell middle class voters in the 905 belt around Toronto, he said. That's why they will also visit Kitchener on Tuesday, another former Liberal stronghold.

"We will be asking who is really better to rally the non-Conservative vote," he said. "We believe (Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff) is not that guy."

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