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Jack Layton addresses supporters at a campaign stop in Cranbrook, B.C., on April 6, 2011. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
Jack Layton addresses supporters at a campaign stop in Cranbrook, B.C., on April 6, 2011. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

NDP looking to make gains in Conservative-friendly B.C. Interior Add to ...

Jack Layton talks about his party's love of running "uphill."

If there ever was an uphill climb faced by New Democrats, it would be here in the British Columbia Interior, where the Conservatives have trounced their opponents in previous elections.

Conservative support runs deep in Prince George and also in Cranbrook, the two B.C. cities that Mr. Layton visited Wednesday. Both have more in common politically with Tory-friendly Alberta than with the mosaic of party allegiances expressed in and around Vancouver or out on the Island.

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But the NDP has been a second choice in these ridings - a distant second, perhaps, but second nonetheless. And the party believes the retirement of Conservative stalwarts Jay Hill in Prince George-Peace River and Jim Abbott in Kootenay-Columbia may open some doors.

There has also been a round of support swapping that could work in the New Democrats' favour.

The former Liberal candidate in Cariboo-Prince George, where Conservative Dick Harris would appear to be a prohibitive favourite after taking 55 per cent of the vote in 2008, has endorsed NDP candidate Jonathan Van Barneveld.

In Kootenay-Columbia, former Liberal candidate Mark Shmigelsky is running for the New Democrats, a defection that the NDP hopes will consolidate left-leaning sentiment in that riding.

And in Mr. Hill's old riding, the New Democrats are fielding Lois Boone, a former provincial politician from 1986 to 2001 who was both a cabinet minister and deputy premier in the NDP government of Dan Miller.

Add to that the large number of forestry workers who have lost their jobs through the recession and the devastation caused by the pine beetle, and the New Democrats believe they may have a real chance to make gains.

"I think the Conservatives have taken British Columbia, and certainly northern British Columbia, for granted for years," Mr. Layton told the 100 people who turned out to see him Wednesday morning in Ms. Boone's campaign office.

"People have lost jobs. Mills have shut down. [The Conservatives]just wave their hands and say, 'Oh, we're creating jobs all over the place.' Well, tell that to the people who are out of work, who used to have a good middle-class lifestyle and who can barely afford to live here any more."

Mr. Abbott and Mr. Hill both won their ridings last election with 60 per cent of the vote. The other parties split the remainder and none, including the NDP, took a large share.

So Mr. Layton knows he must tap the Conservative vote. He must capture the attention of the disaffected - people whose natural inclination is to lean right but who may be looking for an alternative, and folks who in the not-so-distant past endorsed Reform candidates.

The thing that New Democrats and former Reform Party supporters have in common is an appreciation for grassroots democracy, Mr. Layton said.

"Look at where the strongest response against the HST came from. It came from the Peace district, where people are real grassroots democrats and they don't like being taken advantage of," he said.

British Columbians will vote in a referendum this summer about the HST. If they vote to repeal, Mr. Layton said, the Conservatives will withdraw the $1.6-billion "bribe" the federal government gave the province to convince it to jump on board with the harmonized tax.

The NDP would leave that money in British Columbia, Mr. Layton said.

"It is true that Stephen Harper bribed the Campbell government with $1.6-billion to bring in the HST," he said. "But does that mean that the people of British Columbia, if they have a free vote to abolish the HST, should be penalized?"

It's the kind of message that may resonate with the old Reform vanguard. But there are also the young voters to draw upon.

Kelley Ware, a 19-year-old who will be voting in her first election, turned out to see Mr. Layton when he stopped in Prince George. She said she has not yet decided who will get her support.

"I came here to see what he had to say," she said of the NDP Leader. "I wanted to hear as much information about any platform that I can to make a truly informed decision."

The choice for her, she said, is between the New Democrats and the Liberals, even though the polls suggest that the Conservatives will again cruise to victory in this part of the country.

"But I know in my riding we have a new face to the Conservatives," Ms. Ware said, "so it might be enough that it will change up who [people]think of voting for."

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