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Thomas Mulcair may have gotten a little carried away with the ad-libbing.

Feeding off the energy of a boisterous crowd of supporters in the industrial border town of Sarnia this week, and inspired to break from his text more than usual, the NDP Leader prefaced a switch between official languages by informing his audience it was time for their French lesson.

Patronizing enough to induce cringes, it was an uncomfortable reminder of old concerns about perceived elitism and aloofness making Mr. Mulcair an awkward fit in places his party needs to make inroads.

Still, he and his team could be forgiven for coming away from the sweaty ballroom of the local Holiday Inn feeling buoyant. Even if his skills as a retail politician could use some more fine-tuning, there are signs the New Democrats and their leader are on the verge of a major breakthrough in Southwestern Ontario – a hard-scrabble region essential to their path to power, through which Mr. Mulcair has now done two extensive swings in the span of a month.

While other parts of the country may be increasingly anxious about economic trends, Canada's version of a rust belt is way beyond them. The decline of traditional manufacturing, consistently low employment numbers, aging and in some cases declining populations all have conspired to create the sort of crankiness typically hazardous to incumbent governments.

The Conservatives are not in as dire shape in the region as Ontario's governing Liberals, who have been virtually wiped out of it. There is no federal issue that serves as a flashpoint, the way provincial energy policies have, and the Tories have rural strongholds that would require an earthquake to shake loose. But in at least 10 ridings, in places ranging from the London and Windsor areas to smaller cities such as Sarnia to parts of the Hamilton and Niagara regions, Conservative MPs have cause to feel nervous about an NDP surge.

Beyond pointing to troublesome trends for those in power, what has happened at the provincial level plays a big role.

The provincial Liberal brand is so toxic in Southwestern Ontario that the federal Liberals had trouble attracting strong candidates even when riding high in the polls. Now, members of Justin Trudeau's campaign team quietly concede that outside a couple of London ridings and the seat they have long held in Guelph (which is geographically and spiritually closer to Toronto than the rest of the region), they're mostly out of play. So rather than Tory-friendly vote splits, there's a good chance anti-Conservative votes will coalesce behind NDP candidates.

Meanwhile, this is one part of Ontario where provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath helped pave the way for Mr. Mulcair. Mostly unsuccessful elsewhere, her version of pocketbook populism has helped the provincial party pick up seven new Southwestern seats since 2011. So it was little surprise when, rarely seen so far in the federal campaign, Ms. Horwath was in Sarnia to introduce her federal counterpart.

Among Mr. Mulcair's imperatives, odd though it may seem given where they otherwise stand, is to channel a bit of the blue-collar appeal that Ms. Horwath – a Hamiltonian who has billed herself as the "Steeltown Scrapper" – has managed. It is not something that comes naturally to him; as of a few months ago, his reputation was for preferring policy debates with fellow members of the ruling class to mingling with the hoi polloi. But he's raising his game, where it seems like it will pay off.

The evening before he headed southwest this week, at a rally in a Toronto-area suburb where his party is still struggling to break through, Mr. Mulcair seemed to be mailing it in a bit – rarely deviating from the stump speech he pleasantly but somewhat flatly read off teleprompters. In Sarnia, where he attracted a bigger crowd than the federal NDP ever has before, he was connecting.

It wasn't just the lines shoehorned into his speech about the importance of manufacturing, or working in his youth as a roofer. It was his fiery delivery, and breaks from the script to tout the NDP's history of looking out for people in need. In a corner of the country looking for something more than calm reassurance about not being a risk, he came off as a fighter.

That line about the French lesson might have been enough to spoil it with a less-friendly crowd. As the pumped-up partisans and recent converts in attendance filed out, eager to spread the word, it already seemed to have been forgotten.