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'Little Jackie Layton

Loved that rascal Puff ...'

I can't resist a light-hearted reference to Jack Layton's troubles with pot-smoking, skinny-dipping NDP candidates, but his 2008 campaign is actually very serious and interesting. He is making a determined attempt to fulfill the dream of displacing the Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservatives.

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In 2004, Mr. Layton, running an energetic but not very strategic campaign, saw some of his vote hijacked in the last weekend by Liberal fear-mongering over a possible Conservative victory. The Liberals won a minority, while the NDP got 15.7 per cent of the vote and 19 seats - a big improvement over 2000, but disappointing compared to hopes.

Learning from that result, Mr. Layton ran a more strategic and disciplined campaign in 2005-2006. After co-operating with the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois to bring down Paul Martin's government, he focused relentlessly on the Liberals' failings. That strategy held the NDP vote together when the Liberals tried to repeat their 2004 tactics, and he was rewarded with 17.5 per cent of the vote and 29 seats.

Now, seeing Stéphane Dion's weakness as a leader, Mr. Layton wants to move past him and position himself as the real alternative to Stephen Harper. From Day 1 of the campaign, Mr. Layton has insisted he is running to be prime minister, so his speeches and NDP ads have ignored the Liberals and focused on the Conservatives.

Also in line with the stated goal of making Mr. Layton prime minister, the NDP has for the first time announced a fully funded national campaign, borrowing whatever is required to reach the spending limit of about $19-million. They are also making a major effort in Quebec, building on their recent success of electing Thomas Mulcair in the Outremont by-election.

Of course, the real goal is not to win this election but to get more seats than the sinking Liberals, and eventually to replace them as the credible alternative governing party to the Tories. So how's it going?

The party has, indeed, made some progress. Many polls have NDP support in the high teens or even slightly over 20 per cent, whereas the Liberals have several times been measured as low as 23 per cent. But the remaining gap will be tough to bridge because Liberal core support consists of anglophones in Quebec, francophones outside Quebec and other ethnic minorities with no tradition of voting for the New Democrats.

The Greens also pose a problem, particularly now that Mr. Layton has failed to keep Ms. May out of the leaders' debates. No one knows whether Green support, measured in the low teens, will hold up on election day, and how it will affect other parties' chances.

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Mr. Layton's aggressive strategy carries considerable risks. The more he attacks Mr. Harper, the more he feeds the notion that "progressive" voters should get together to block a decisive Conservative victory. If the NDP has not surpassed the Liberals in the polls by the end of the campaign, it could be vulnerable to a repeat of 2004, when swing voters on the left responded to Liberal appeals to come over to their side.

Indeed, Gilles Duceppe is arguing that voting for the Bloc Québécois is the only way to keep the Conservatives from winning a majority. Mr. Duceppe's appeal for strategic voting may help to contain the NDP challenge in Quebec, where the party seems stuck in the low teens - probably enough to re-elect Mr. Mulcair but not enough to add new seats, although it may help some BQ or Conservative candidates to win previously Liberal ridings and thus indirectly serve Mr. Layton's purpose of weakening the Liberals.

The latest development in Mr. Layton's strategizing is yesterday's announcement that he might enter a parliamentary coalition with the Liberals to prevent the Conservatives from governing in a minority Parliament, but this is a two-edged sword. Mr. Layton framed the announcement as if he would be an NDP prime minister backed by the Liberals. But if the Liberals are still leading the NDP in the polls at the end of the campaign, voters could just as easily conclude that they should vote Liberal to "stop Harper."

Mr. Layton's wager is a courageous political strategy, but his party will have to wait for the election results before deciding whether it was a brilliant move at the right time or a reckless departure from what worked in 2006.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.

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