Jack Layton's sudden surge to the front of the Quebec pack is about to make him a bigger target than he's ever been before.
An NDP campaign that started to take off after Mr. Layton's solid debate performance is now on a major roll in Quebec, even as the Bloc Québécois, led by a cheerless Gilles Duceppe, slogs along facing the risk of a historic setback.
The NDP's nationalist-friendly policies, like extending controversial French language protection laws to federal institutions, have undoubtedly helped. More important than policy details, Mr. Layton has campaigned with a relentlessly positive vibe - a rare commodity among federal leaders mostly peddling fear.
Committed sovereigntists who have in the past referred to the New Democrat Leader as " un bon jack," common Quebec parlance for a good guy, have already started to turn on him, accusing him and his party of selling out Quebec values. And those are his onetime left-wing sympathizers.
"The smile does nothing to remove the positions they've taken, whether it's the repatriation of the Constitution or supporting the Clarity Act," Mr. Duceppe said Thursday, a hint of growing desperation in Bloc ranks.
Mr. Layton has had some fortuitous strokes along the way. Just the other night, the NDP Leader was interviewed in a bar when he watched the Montreal Canadiens score a big goal on an overhead TV screen. Already known in the province for his good humour, gumption and carefree mangling of everyman street French, Mr. Layton got lost in delirious joy. The clip got heavy play across Quebec in a publicity coup money can't buy.
The NDP has grown steadily in opinion surveys since the debates, but Thursday the party's popularity took an unexpected, eyebrow-raising leap.
Establishing whether the latest spike was a blip or an error, how far it might go and how it could translate into seats suddenly became the second most popular sport in the province.
Electoral waves have swept Quebec's provincial and federal maps before, but those charts were never quite as complicated as this one. The province has never had a federal or provincial election with four competitive parties.
The news broke first early Thursday when the Montreal newspaper La Presse ran banner headlines out of a CROP survey suggesting the NDP was the choice of 36 per cent of Quebeckers, compared to 31 per cent for the Bloc. The Conservatives and Liberals trailed at 17 and 13 per cent, respectively. At least two other polls came out showing similar results.
The stunning numbers, which one Montreal chronicler cheekily dubbed "Jackomania," briefly knocked the Canadiens off the top of local newscasts.
In contrast, the Bloc has yet to recover from a near stationary start, where the party treaded water around Montreal, putting Mr. Duceppe in front of small crowds of mostly aging supporters. The Bloc Leader had little new to tell them, raging for days against Conservative Leader Stephen Harper on the coalition issue.
But Mr. Layton will now have policy positions picked apart. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff accused the NDP of being weak on the gun registry while campaigning in Montreal.
"The federal NDP has never formed a government in the history of Canada. That's just a fact. And we're in the business on the second of May of choosing governments," he said.
Two prominent sovereigntists published detailed critiques of the NDP this week, blasting the party for failing to strongly back the gun registry, for taking Newfoundland's side in federal funding for a hydro project and for endorsing the repatriation of the Constitution and the Clarity Act, which set out some rules for future sovereignty referendums.
Many in the rest of Canada will also take a harder look at NDP promises to extend Quebec's controversial language laws to bolster the use of French in federal workplaces.
"We think this is one of those ones where you can use some nuance and use some understanding to move ahead on an issue that is very important to Quebeckers, in a fashion that also respects the bilingual nature of the country," Mr. Layton told The Globe and Mail's editorial board in a Thursday meeting.
"I think there's been a huge change over the years in how people in the rest of Canada view Quebec," Mr. Layton said.
Translating good feelings into votes remains Mr. Layton's most daunting challenge in Quebec. His support is relatively widespread. Unlike the other three parties which each have regional strongholds, the NDP might not be able to turn a big rise in polls into a large number of seats.
The party has only ever had one seat in Quebec. Many of its candidates are unknowns with little experience or political organization. One profile on the NDP website refers to the candidate's plan to go back to university.
On the streets of Montreal's east end, said to be among the areas of growth for the NDP, Claudette Viau, a retiree and committed voter, illustrated Mr. Layton's problem. She initially expressed admiration for "the English guy from the West Island," but after a few questions admitted she would likely end up voting Bloc.
A hundred feet away, evidence of the nerves of Bloc supporters hung from a lamppost: a Jack Layton poster defaced with separatist slogans. While Conservative and Liberal posters are often targeted, few have bothered vandalizing NDP campaign material before now.
With reports from Bill Curry in Montreal, Steve Ladurantaye in Toronto and Gloria Galloway in Ottawa