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Andrea Horwath's New Democrats are hoping that by the end of the provincial election campaign, Southwestern Ontario will be to them what Quebec was to their federal cousins in 2011.

Viewed through that lens, the NDP's strategy in this campaign starts to make a little more sense – as does its decision to force the election in the first place.

As it was for the federal NDP until three years ago, it is a perpetual struggle for Ontario New Democrats to be taken seriously as a mainstream option by enough voters. People who might otherwise vote for them, or at least be open to doing so, are dissuaded by the belief they'd be throwing away their ballots rather than casting them for a party with a realistic chance of forming government. For some voters supporting the NDP is almost a taboo, not to be mentioned in polite company.

A lesson for the NDP in the previous federal election, though, was that it's possible to change that perception starting in one place and spreading outward. A sudden surge in Quebec not only netted most of that province's seats; it also pushed the New Democrats' national poll numbers high enough that it became more acceptable to vote for them in other parts of the country as well.

If there's going to be a similar wave for their party, provincial New Democrats believe, it will start toward the bottom of Highway 401. That's where tough economic times seem to have created the greatest desire for change from the two parties that have dominated government, and where Ms. Horwath's blue-collar appeal plays best – as evidenced by four by-election wins in the southwest and the nearby (and similarly hard-hit) Niagara region over the past two years.

The belief that there is a chance for a real surge down there was behind Ms. Horwath's willingness to force an election over a decidedly left-of-centre budget that played to her party's long-held values. In the southwest, the New Democrats are competing less with Kathleen Wynne's Liberals – who are out of contention in all but a handful of southwestern ridings – than with the Progressive Conservatives for change votes. So they could ill afford to be seen as apologists for a scandal-plagued government.

It also explains why Ms. Horwath has all but abandoned the NDP's social-conscience role in her own policy agenda, instead favouring pocketbook populism. Playing to a part of the province that doesn't have much faith in government to do big, ambitious things, she is promising small, deliverable ones such as tax credits or a curbing of public-sector executives' salaries.

At a minimum, Ms. Horwath is hoping this strategy will bring her a few new seats that allow her to point to steady growth of the NDP caucus – which only a few years ago had 10 members, and now has 21 – under her leadership.

In the NDP's dream scenario, the southwestern surge helps it pull even with or ahead of the Liberals in the polls, allowing Ms. Horwath to present herself to those in Toronto and elsewhere as the main alternative to PC Leader Tim Hudak.

That, admittedly, seems like a long shot after the NDP was largely marginalized in the campaign's early days. And if shifting the party away from its traditional turf backfires, failing to pay dividends in the southwest while costing incumbent downtown Toronto MPPs their seats, Ms. Horwath could find herself looking for a new job. But then, New Democrats would note that around this point of the previous federal campaign they were still being written off, too.

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