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Politics NDP, Conservatives battling for swing voters in fickle Quebec City

A guidance counsellor who is recovering from a torn ligament in her hand, Martine Dorion proudly describes herself as a long-time Conservative voter, but she is in the undecided category these days.

MATHIEU BELANGER/The Globe and Mail

Quebec City slowly loses its cachet as you go north of the Château Frontenac, past the surrounding walls and fortifications, beyond the brand-new hockey rink on a congested highway, and into a suburban area of shopping malls, modern condos and older houses.

Still, the neighbourhood of Neufchâtel is the place to go to find the city's notoriously fickle swing voters.

They may live in a provincial capital, work for various orders of government or depend on the military for their livelihoods, but they are leery of politicians and the state, and their votes are incredibly hard to predict. They supported the Liberal Party and the Bloc Québécois in the past, but these days, their hearts are torn between the Conservative Party and the NDP.

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The street-by-street battle between the two parties for the vote of the likes of Martine Dorion is one of the keys of the Oct. 19 election.

A guidance counsellor who is recovering from a torn ligament in her hand, Ms. Dorion proudly describes herself as a long-time Conservative voter, but she is in the undecided category these days. The Harper government "hasn't been catastrophic," she said, adding that "there is a wind of change in Canada, and change never hurts."

Ms. Dorion has two dogs, including one named Tom, but she is quick to say it isn't in honour of the NDP Leader. "I'm not sure I like him," she said of Thomas Mulcair. "I find him to be cold, you don't feel his empathy."

Ms. Dorion's vote could swing either way in the remaining weeks of the campaign. Wherever it lands, it will have an impact on the overall results. The race between the NDP and the Conservative Party in Quebec City is too close to call, with the area's seven seats among those that could shift the balance of power in the House of Commons in a tight election.

It's been called "le mystère de Québec" – the indecipherable voting pattern that gave a succession of majorities to the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois and the Conservative Party. The latest stunner came in 2011, when the New Democrats kicked out the Tories and swept Quebec City.

In the seven seats that make up the city and nearby municipalities, the NDP took 42.6 per cent of the votes four years ago, well ahead of the Conservatives, which finished with an overall share of 26.7 per cent.

At this point of the current campaign, according to the most recent Léger poll numbers, Quebec City is the scene of a two-way race between the NDP at 36 per cent and the Conservative at 34 per cent. The Bloc Québécois is far behind in the area at 20 per cent, and the Liberal Party is an afterthought at 9 per cent.

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After a strong performance in Thursday night's first French-language debate, where he aggressively defended his record in politics, Mr. Mulcair travelled to Quebec City to shore up his support.

Mr. Mulcair met with populist Mayor Régis Labeaume, who hasn't been the NDP's biggest fan, and held a rally to energize his troops.

The Conservatives have momentum in Quebec City in the polls, following their push to force women to remove their niqabs to participate in citizenship ceremonies. Since he became party leader, Stephen Harper has courted right-wing voters in "la Vieille Capitale" in a bid to win ridings in the largely suburban areas that surround Quebec City's touristic core.

The Conservatives have cultivated close ties with Mr. Labeaume, making sure he was always present as they unveiled a steady stream of funding announcements to high-tech facilities, tourist attractions and major infrastructures such as the local port authority.

Still, the Conservatives paid a price in 2011 for hinting that Ottawa would pay a part of the city's new hockey arena, only to stay out of the project. Combined with then-NDP leader Jack Layton's charisma, Quebec City jumped on the Orange Wave.

These days, the Centre Vidéotron has just been inaugurated to the pride of the local citizenry, and Mr. Mulcair's team benefits from an overall sense of fatigue with the Harper government.

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"I have voted Conservative in the past, I won't deny that," said Jean-Yves Lemieux, a former body-shop worker. The 62-year-old feels the party has lost touch with issues that matter, decrying the treatment of military personnel coming back from war zones.

"We need fresh blood, things have to change," he said, while refusing to say for whom he'll vote.

The Conservative Party's response to cynical voters such as Mr. Lemieux is that they may want a new government, but would they really want the NDP in power?

"Change in favour of what? Change in favour of people who, every time they governed a province, ended with a massive deficit? Change in favour of people who want to raises taxes? Change in favour of people who want to take money from your pockets?" Conservative candidate Gérard Deltell asked.

A former television journalist and veteran of provincial politics, Mr. Deltell joined the Conservatives earlier this year, and he is the party's biggest name in the area. If he unseats the NDP in Louis-Saint-Laurent, in the northern edges of the city, the 51-year-old will be a key player in the Conservative Party. Mr. Deltell knows he is fighting the winds of change, which explains why he is portraying the Conservatives as the underdogs in the race.

"We're the challengers this time around, the young wolves gnawing at the legs of the people who are currently in place," he said.

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Mr. Deltell is knocking on doors throughout the city, hoping to provide a boost to other candidates, such as 29-year-old rookie Alupa Clarke in Beauport-Limoilou, in the city's east end. At every house, Mr. Clarke introduces himself as a reservist in the military and a young father who wants to give back to his community as a Conservative MP. He then presents Mr. Deltell, who never fails to elicit a smile as he lays out the Conservative plan to send more money into people's pockets.

The Conservatives have nothing but harsh words for the incumbent NDP MPs in Quebec City, whom Mr. Harper has derided as useless "orange pylons." Mr. Clarke blasted the NDP for continuously blocking economic projects in Quebec City, such as the planned expansion of the local port.

"They act like opposition MPs in their own ridings," he said in an interview. "They are against everything."

His NDP rival in Beauport-Limoilou, Raymond Côté, explained that his party's strength over the years has been to offer concrete, sensible solutions to the issues facing voters, such as the rising cost of living. He explained that the population here doesn't look at the political spectrum to decide on its electoral choice, which explains why votes can transfer from the right-wing Conservatives to the left-wing NDP.

"A large percentage of the population is not ideologically aligned," Mr. Côté said in a coffee shop on a rejuvenated strip in the working-class neighbourhood of Limoilou. "They are looking for an option with which they feel confident, and which offers common-sense solutions to the issues that they face."

One of the unique dynamics in the race is Quebec City's appetite for talk radio, with five stations that continuously provide scathing commentary on the day's events. The underlying tone is that the Conservative government deserves to be re-elected, but popular morning man Sylvain Bouchard said that if a majority of the local voters ignored his pro-Conservative message in 2011, odds are strong that they will once again vote for change.

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He added there is nothing unusual about the voting shifts in Quebec City.

"The cities that always go in the same direction suffer electorally, in terms of the promises that are made by the different parties," he said. "The real mystery, in my view, are the parts of the country that always vote the same way."

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