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Autoworkers union boss Buzz Hargrove cut the legs from under the NDP's election message when he delivered a qualified endorsement of Paul Martin's Liberals yesterday.

Mr. Hargrove called for the Liberals' minority government to be returned to office in greater numbers, telling unionized workers they should vote strategically to elect the Liberals to form a government supported by the New Democrats.

"If you look at the record, and every Canadian should agree, this government, this minority government, deserves to go back to Ottawa with even bigger numbers," Mr. Hargrove told delegates at the Canadian Auto Workers' national council meeting.

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It was an unprecedented call for a president of the CAW, which usually stands behind the union-affiliated NDP even if some members break ranks.

Mr. Hargrove said his union -- the largest in Canada representing private-sector workers, with 280,000 members at auto plants and companies such as Air Canada -- will support New Democrats in ridings they can win. But elsewhere, he explained, it will work for Liberals to prevent Conservatives from being elected.

"We want a clear minority government, led by Paul Martin, with as many New Democrats holding the balance of power as possible."

He said that his union will support NDP Leader Jack Layton's wife, Olivia Chow, against Liberal cabinet minister Tony Ianno in Trinity-Spadina, for example, but in the Essex riding outside Windsor, it will back Susan Whelan, a Chrétien-era minister, to stop the Tories.

Mr. Hargrove's stand is a stinging blow to the New Democrats, whose campaign strategy is focused on preventing the vote splits that cost them seats in last year's election.

The party has decided to target Mr. Martin -- far more than the Conservatives -- because it believes the Liberal Leader's plea to NDP voters last year to block Tories from being elected encouraged some New Democrats to switch to the Liberals, even in ridings where the NDP had a better chance of defeating the Conservatives.

"Let me just tell you, Buzz, I could listen to you all day," Mr. Martin beamed as he took the stage yesterday, while his aides were visibly gleeful.

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Mr. Martin pressed his message that the election is a two-horse race.

"Liberals or Conservatives -- one of us will form the next government. Liberals or Conservatives -- one of us will be making decisions on the important issues that will directly affect you and your family and your jobs," he said. "On Jan. 24, one of only two people is going to wake up the prime minister of Canada."

Mr. Layton described Mr. Hargrove's remarks as one person's view of what the next Parliament should look like. Speaking with reporters on a flight from Regina to Victoria, he rejected the suggestion people should vote Liberal in ridings where the NDP is weak.

"Our view is the Liberals don't deserve people's support. What have they done in the 12 years they've been in power to improve the lives of working people?" he said. "My job is to elect as many New Democrats as possible to that House, and that's what I'm going to do."

Noting that many CAW workers are NDP candidates, he added: "Mr. Hargrove is well known for having his opinions and expressing them, and he's entitled to them in terms of how that House [of Commons]should be composed."

In places like Hamilton, Oshawa and Saskatchewan, where the NDP narrowly lost in 2004, Mr. Layton has been attempting to polarize the vote as a battle between the New Democrats and the Conservatives. "Don't waste your vote on the Liberals," he said yesterday morning in Regina.

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That message won backing from Saskatchewan's NDP Premier, Lorne Calvert, who said a Conservative government "is not good news for Canadians" and that he would be happy with a minority Liberal or minority NDP government.

"This election again I think there will be a building of New Democratic Party fortunes -- not to put us into government this election, but I think positioning this party very well for a government not so far down the future," he said.

In his speech, Mr. Hargrove lauded Liberal ministers for their help on issues important to unions and praised Mr. Martin for $400-million in auto-industry subsidies. He told reporters he is not sure that a majority Liberal government would have done the same.

The CAW boss noted, however, that Stephen Harper's Conservatives would never have offered the same support and called them "extreme right wing."

"With Stephen Harper and the Tories in power we would see a much different Canada. A much more divisive Canada."

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