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NDP Leader Jack Layton signs an autograph at a rally in London, Ont., on April 4, 2011. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
NDP Leader Jack Layton signs an autograph at a rally in London, Ont., on April 4, 2011. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Layton gambles on rally in defector's riding - and wins Add to ...

It was a bit of gamble for NDP Leader Jack Layton to hold a rally in the southwestern Ontario riding where one of his candidates defected just days into the election campaign to throw his support behind the Liberals.

Ryan Dolby's departure, which was calculated to concentrate support behind a candidate capable of defeating Conservative incumbent Joe Preston, defied the core message delivered by Mr. Layton every day of this campaign: That his party, not the Liberals, can defeat Conservatives and prevent a Stephen Harper majority.

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In the end, it was a gamble that seemed to pay off. An exuberant crowd of 400 filled the hall.

When the same number of people turned out on a Saturday morning to hear Mr. Layton speak in the NDP stronghold of Halifax, it can be said that the gathering was underwhelming.

When 400 people fly New Democratic colours at 5 p.m. on a Monday night - a time when many people are just leaving work and in a city that has just one NDP MP - it's a success.

A small and tepid affair would have validated Mr. Dolby's point of view that strategic voting by left-leaning Canadians is the way to stop Conservatives, a result that could create a seepage of NDP voters to the Liberals in ridings across the country.

But a large turnout at the event at a hotel in the riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London tells voters that Mr. Layton is right - that even the sudden loss of the candidate who represented the New Democrats in 2008 election could not diminish support for the NDP in this riding.

"Folks here in London know that Ottawa is broken and they know that (Liberal Leader) Michael Ignatieff is not the solution," Mr. Layton told the crowd.

"Michael Ignatieff supported Stephen Harper over 100 times and got nothing for southwestern Ontario in return."

The New Democrats were quick to replace their turncoat candidate.

Fred Sinclair, the NDP riding-association president who has been the leader of his Canadian Auto Workers local, took on the job the day after Mr. Dolby left.

"I'm going down to support our candidate who comes with a record of service in his community which is very strong, and of course this is also a area of the country where a lot of people have lost their jobs," Mr. Layton told reporters.

"Stephen Harper likes to pretend that the work has been created," he said. "You'll talk to a lot of people there who have lost their middle-class job and now they're competing sometimes even with their teenage kids for jobs at coffee shops. It's a desperate situation when it comes to employment in that region - and that's one of the reasons that we're going to be there."

Which would suggest that London is fertile ground for the New Democrats, who have targeted their policies at working families who are still feeling the effects of the recession. But Mr. Preston took nearly 3,000 more votes than the NDP and Liberal candidates put together in the last election.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper visited this city on Sunday and ducked a protest by families of workers at Diamond Aircraft Ltd., which announced last week that it would be laying off 213 employees because a promised $39-million federal loan did not come through.

"Mr. Harper really doesn't care about the workers who have been laid off," said Mr. Layton, who met with the head of the company on his own tour through town. "He's made no effort whatsoever to connect with the problems that they and their families are facing. He goes to communities that have been devastated by job losses and he doesn't even talk about the issue."

The people who turned out to the rally appeared mostly to be committed New Democrats rather than curious voters who wanted to kick Mr. Layton's tires.

And they were eager to defend the NDP.

"They're talking my language, they talk about workers, and they talk about fair legislation for workers," said Hector McLellan, a retired General Motors worker. Mr.McLellan said he was disappointed by Mr. Dolby's decision, but people have to do what their conscience dictates.

Frank Miller, who was wearing an NDP button, said he has voted for various parties in the past but supports the party because he is impressed by local New Democratic MP Irene Mathyssen. Like Mr. McLellan, Mr. Miller said he was disappointed in Mr. Dolby. "It's kind of a blow," he said.

Bill MacKinnon, whose mother was a New Democratic member of the Ontario legislature, said she feels the same way. "It's a free country," Mr. MacKinnon said. He added that he didn't agree with Mr. Dolby's decision and that he himself could never vote anything but NDP. "A lot of people might do the same thing," he said, "vote Liberal just to get the Conservatives out. That's unfortunate."

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