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NDP Leader Jack Layton addresses supporters during a campaign stop in downtown Montreal on April 23 , 2011. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton addresses supporters during a campaign stop in downtown Montreal on April 23 , 2011. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS)

This election comes down <br/>to a choice Add to ...

Whatever else happens in this election, Jack Layton's final Montreal rally made all the hard work of this campaign worth it. At least, that's how it looked to New Democrats from the province of Quebec.

We were recruited in the mid-1980s by Ed Broadbent and his team. We wandered in the desert with the party through the 1990s (standing in line for the rally, a friend reminisced about the 1993 NDP "victory" party in Montreal, where several colleagues really did show up with paper bags on their heads).

And then we got to be part of the rebuild. Leading, at last, to 1,500 or so of us standing in line all the way down the block, waiting to pack Theatre Olympia on Rue Ste-Catherine to cheer Monsieur Jack Layton.

Who is, as things stand today, Quebec's 2011 nominee to be the next prime minister of Canada.

No small achievement, that. Persuading a plurality of Quebeckers to turn away from 20 years of strike votes, and to re-engage with fellow Canadians in federal politics.

It was moving, and a privilege, to see that moment in that theater. To see how Jack Layton stepped up to it. To see him share it with such undisguised joy with his family and tiny granddaughter and the rest of us.

So the remaining questions in the last week of this election are these: Will Jacques Parizeau and his mini-me, Gilles Duceppe, talk francophone Quebeckers back into their strike vote? And will other Canadians, notably in Ontario, take up the offer Mr. Layton is making, or embrace Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff instead?

Placing a long-shot bet on Parizeau

Jacques Parizeau is a highly polarizing figure. In 1995, Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard had to step in to rescue Mr. Parizeau, who was driving the "yes" forces into the ground during his failed referendum campaign.

It is therefore a little odd to see the Bloc turn to Mr. Parizeau to rescue its 2011 federal campaign, as it is doing this week. It says something about what a hollow figure Gilles Duceppe is compared to Lucien Bouchard, his formidable predecessor.

And it suggests the Bloc may have narrowed its goals, and is only hoping to cling to the votes of Quebec's sovereignist minority.

If so, Mr. Layton may well hold on to - and perhaps build on - the remarkable support he has attracted in Quebec.

Harper and his feral campaign

Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff are not players in the battle for Quebec (who would have thought that, three weeks ago?). So what about them?

Mr. Harper, clearly, has decided to try to win this election on the ground. He had a mainstream, majoritarian appeal available to him. But it would seem that appealing to Canada's majority is not in Mr. Harper's DNA. Instead he is seeking to squeak into a mandate through " micro-targeting."

What Mr. Harper has had to say - on the road, in the debates, in his advertising - is all about voter suppression. Basically, Mr. Harper is trying to persuade non-Conservatives to stay home and not vote, by sliming his opponents.

There is a feral grubbiness to this Conservative campaign - not unlike Mr. Parizeau's "boil them like lobsters" stealth separatism strategy. It might work, barely. But it is not a quest for an inspiring and transformative mandate. And like Mr. Parizeau, it probably doesn't have lasting appeal.

Ignatieff's achievement

As for Mr. Ignatieff, he has put his party into the worst possible position.

He is off the radar in Quebec, and therefore is almost certainly not in a mathematical position to form a government. He has failed to even begin a pitch to moderate conservatives like himself - currently parked with Mr. Harper. And he has been forced to pivot and attack Mr. Layton. On what?

Health care? Mr. Layton would welcome making the last days of this campaign about health care, since the NDP is an order of magnitude more credible on the issue than Mr. Ignatieff and his post-Paul Martin party.

Cap and trade? The Liberals are attacking the NDP's cap and trade climate change proposal - while simultaneously having lifted it and put it into their own platform.

Quebec? Mr. Layton's proposals to make room for Quebec in Canada are in the tradition of Lester Pearson and his landmark pension agreement with Jean Lesage. Does Mr. Ignatieff really want to campaign in the final week of this campaign against Lester Pearson?

Experience in government? Mr. Layton is a veteran public official, with deep municipal and federal experience. Mr. Ignatieff is a neophyte, entirely innocent of government experience of any kind, either here, in Britain or in the United States.

Anything can happen in politics. But what we may be in for in the last week of this campaign is the unusual sight of three leaders - Mr. Harper, Mr. Ignatieff, and Mr. Duceppe - focused on attacking the NDP.

And the increasingly familiar sight of Jack Layton shrugging off these attacks, and offering Canadians something they are clearly looking for - some hope, some optimism, some unity, some relief from angry and divisive politics.

A choice between three angry, threatened men and a relaxed, smiling, positive national leader - in some ways, the only real national leader running in this election.

As I was saying a few weeks ago, this might just work out surprisingly well.

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