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For a short while yesterday, a sun dog was hanging in the sky to the east -- a sure sign, some will say, of change coming.

Most would say weather, but not Lorne Nystrom.

"Every 20 years, the NDP climbs," says the New Democratic Party candidate for Regina Qu'Appelle, trying for a second comeback in the province that gave birth to Canadian socialism.

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"In the 1940s, it was the CCF [Co-operative Commonwealth Federation]and the Liberals answered by bringing in social programs. That's why they used to say the definition of a CCFer was 'Liberals in a hurry.'

"In the 1960s, the NDP was doing fine just before Trudeau came along. In the 1980s, Ed Broadbent led the polls at one point.

"Well, it's 20 years later again . . ."

It is also a remarkable 37 years later from that day in 1968 when 22-year-old Lorne Nystrom of Wynyard headed off to Ottawa to represent the riding of Yorkton-Melville. The curly head of hair is still there, but the lines in the face hint at the reality that he will soon be 60.

He stayed in Parliament for a quarter of a century, through good times and bad, including the failed marriage that is so often a part of Canadian politics. He was cleanly defeated in 1993 when the Reform Party seemed new and fresh in the West, came back in the next election, and was defeated again in 2004, barely, by a bright 25-year-old Conservative, Andrew Scheer, who had come out from Ottawa to go to school while working part time as a waiter.

Nystrom's loss in 1993 stung badly; his loss in 2004 hardly at all. He, like other defeated NDPers in the province, put it all down to vote splitting, the desperate Liberals using scare tactics to frighten left-leaning voters into voting Liberal, not NDP, to stop Stephen Harper and the Conservatives from gaining a minority government.

It worked in Ontario. In some places, however, it had precisely the opposite effect.

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"They were voting to keep the Conservatives out," Nystrom says about his own riding. "And by doing so, they voted a Conservative in."

The scare tactics cost the NDP votes in Saskatchewan, but did not deliver enough to the Liberals to win more than the one Regina-area seat held by Finance Minister Ralph Goodale. Nystrom lost a squeaker. Dick Proctor, also trying to hold a Regina riding for the NDP, lost his by even a smaller margin.

For the first time in memory, the NDP claimed not a single one of the 14 Saskatchewan ridings. Four seats, including Nystrom's, were lost by such small margins that the party is convinced that, come Jan. 23, Saskatchewan will return to its more normal state of politics: a mix of all three parties.

And if the results are as close as they were in June, 2004, the province could very well determine the face of government in Ottawa.

As Nystrom puts it, had he and Proctor won their seats, as had been expected, there would never have been the precarious vote of this past spring that nearly toppled the government. And the New Democrats, with those two extra seats, might have chosen to continue supporting the Liberals so long as it suited them.

Nystrom points to the deal leader Jack Layton struck to prop up the Liberals in exchange for $4.6-billion in spending, mostly on social programs.

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"The question is, 'What have the 13 Conservatives done in this province?' " Nystrom asks. "We think, very little."

He also believes that Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert has given federal NDP candidates a critical issue in demanding a fair deal for Saskatchewan on resources, a deal that Calvert wants to match those given other provinces on oil and gas revenues.

On the negative side, Nystrom and other candidates are coming up against the wall of cynicism that may ultimately prove to be the legacy of this election. He has been knocking on doors since August, at times running into widespread public anger and disenchantment.

Nystrom came into politics at the time of Expo and Pierre Trudeau, a time of high voter turnout and confidence in the country. Nearly four decades later -- after Watergate in the United States, after scandals in Ottawa and right here in Saskatchewan -- the voter turnout may be the lowest ever and cynicism rules.

"There's no short-term solution," he says.

But he thinks there is a long-term one and desperately wants to be part of it.

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Despite his electoral and leadership losses, despite personal costs and setbacks to his own reputation, he still believes it's worth doing.

He wants to work to make sure the ethics package introduced by Mr. Broadbent, retiring MP and former NDP leader, isn't lost. He wants to work for systemic change that would bring in proportional representation and fixed election dates and abolish the Senate.

He wants back in and, if internal polling counts for everything, he just might make it.

"If the election were held today," he says, "we'd be okay.

"The election is not today."

rmacgregor@globeandmail.ca

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