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Andrea Horwath’s Ontario New Democrats could be primed for bigger gains in the provincial election likely to happen this spring.KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/The Globe and Mail

For Andrea Horwath's New Democrats, it was hard to complain about their party's result in the 2011 Ontario election. Coming into the campaign with 10 seats, they ended it with 17 – their most positive showing since their one-off win under Bob Rae more than two decades earlier.

The reality, though, is that they probably could have won a few more ridings, if not for a problem that was obvious when visiting battleground ridings before the writ dropped.

In places like Thunder Bay, or Windsor, or downtown Ottawa – represented by New Democrats federally, and in many cases seemingly ready to turn away from the governing Liberals provincially – the NDP simply didn't have candidates who were ready to compete. Many of them were nice, well-intentioned people who might have looked good on paper, but in practice they suffered for lack of profile, experience and organization.

Among the various indications that the New Democrats could be primed for bigger gains in the provincial election likely to happen this spring, one of the most important is that they appear to be making a concerted effort to avoid history repeating itself.

"There's been a shift," says Catherine Fife, the rookie MPP tasked with heading up the NDP's candidate recruitment efforts. Although by her count the party has only held nomination meetings in about 30 of the province's 107 ridings, with about a dozen more scheduled for the next month, there's a good number of examples to back up that claim.

By Ms. Fife's account, her party has been seeking out a diverse slate of candidates, with a special focus on wooing women. (Female candidates have won more than half the nominations so far.) But what especially stands out is that the NDP seems to be attracting a lot of people who have already made their names in local politics.

In Ottawa Centre, a left-leaning riding represented by Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi, there is school board chair Jennifer McKenzie. In Thunder Bay-Superior North, where Northern Development Minister Michael Gravelle held on last time by fewer than 3,000 votes against a badly overmatched opponent, there is city councillor Andrew Foulds. Another city councillor, Joe Cimino, is running in the Sudbury riding that's the NDP's for the taking with veteran minister Rick Bartolucci calling it quits.

Yet another, Wayne Gates, stands a good chance of getting elected in the Niagara Falls by-election currently underway. If he succeeds, he'll be following in the footsteps of three other veteran local politicians – Percy Hatfield in Windsor-Tecumseh, Peggy Sattler in London West, and Ms. Fife herself in Kitchener-Waterloo – who have upped the NDP's seat count to 20 by filling vacancies in the past couple of years.

Ms. Fife credits the slew of councillors in part to a sense that the New Democrats would return power to municipalities that have at times felt pushed around or ignored by the current government. But she also says that those flag-bearers – and others, she stresses, from plenty of other walks of life – are being drawn in by the sense of "momentum" that Ms. Horwath has been able to generate as the NDP consistently polls in at least the mid-twenties.

"Given the dynamic of the parties right now, I think that people see an opportunity for us to have more weight," she says, "and not just this pigeonholed third-party status."

The party is "in active conversations" with potential candidates in several other ridings where it thinks it has a good shot, Ms. Fife reports – particularly in a region where the NDP is polling surprisingly well and could challenge incumbent Progressive Conservatives as well as Liberals. "The conversations that I'm having in Southwestern Ontario are going particularly well, because Andrea for some reason is translating very well there," she says.

Complicating matters somewhat is that the New Democrats have a rather laborious nominations process, which requires all nominations to be approved by their provincial council before being made official. Perhaps more challenging is that the NDP defers more to its riding associations than the province's other two major parties, meaning no assurances can be offered to recruits that the candidacies will be handed to them; every nomination thus far in a riding the NDP doesn't already hold has been contested.

The difference from last time, though, is that the NDP no longer appears to be simply leaving it to local party members to find candidates, then using that as an excuse when those candidates don't pan out. With Ms. Fife and others instead taking a more active role, the nominations are an example of how Ms. Horwath's party is slowly professionalizing – and preparing itself to take full advantage if those strong polling numbers hold up.

Adam Radwanski is The Globe's columnist covering Ontario politics.