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Liberals scramble to save seats in election's dying days

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff (R) shakes hands during a campaign rally at Albert-Rousseau theater in Quebec City, April 28, 2011. Canadians will go to the polls in a federal election on May 2. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters/Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

Michael Ignatieff and his Liberals are spending the final three days of their campaign entrenched in Ontario, mostly in and around the GTA, trying to salvage the seats they already hold and trying to win back ridings they lost in close races in 2008.

The story is similar in other regions. In Atlantic Canada, some Liberal volunteers are abandoning attempts to make inroads into ridings held by NDP incumbents and are trying to rescue their own, for example, Mike Savage in Dartmouth, who is running against a tough NDP opponent, and Brian Murphy in Moncton, who is facing a challenge from the Conservatives.

On the West Coast, some grassroots Liberals in Richmond say they are giving up on trying to unseat Conservative Alice Wong and are going to downtown Vancouver to help Liberal incumbent Hedy Fry.

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"In a way, it's a crapshoot that is unprecedented in modern times," said Liberal Senator David Smith, a national co-chair of the campaign. "This thing is going to be fought on a riding-by-riding level … because at this stage it's riding by riding."

Polling is showing a new low for Liberals: finishing third, behind the NDP, for the first time in the party's history

While Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton will travel to British Columbia, Mr. Ignatieff's team has deemed going out to that coast too far. It's more important for the leader to be in Ontario, where he will continue to focus mostly on Conservative ridings that his team considers vulnerable.

He leaves Quebec on Friday for London and Kitchener-Waterloo. The Liberals believe they still have a fighting chance in two ridings, Kitchener Centre and Kitchener-Waterloo, which they lost to the Conservatives in 2008.

On Saturday, Mr. Ignatieff will swing through Guelph and into the riding of Brant, where there is a tight race between the Liberal candidate and Conservative incumbent. The Liberals lost the riding in 2008. He will also be in Hamilton-East, Stoney Creek and Brampton-Springdale, where Liberal incumbent Ruby Dhalla is facing a challenge from her Tory opponent.

On Sunday, Mr. Ignatieff will be in three ridings where the races will be close between the Liberals and Conservatives: Mississauga-Erindale, Ajax-Pickering and Oak Ridges-Markham.

New ads have just been launched, too - one will play in Tory ridings contrasting the Liberal plan with that of the Conservatives. And another is running in NDP ridings in which the Liberals criticize the Layton platform using third-party validation.

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It's now all about the ground game, identifying and getting out the Liberal vote, Senator Smith said. Many Liberals have emphasized the fact that 800,000 Liberal voters stayed home in the 2008 election. They are keeping their fingers crossed these voters will come back to them on Monday.

But as Liberals try to refocus in these last crucial days, the infighting is beginning with some senior Liberals blaming a disconnect between the leader and his national campaign team.

They blame the polling - arguing that it misdiagnosed the concerns and attitudes of voters.

But pollster Michael Marzolini said "it's news to me."

"How do they think I have misdiagnosed? The only thing I failed to predict was Layton's debate performance - and that kind of prediction isn't my job."

Others are blaming the flurry of confusing messages.

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A senior Liberal complained, for example, that while the party's health-care ads were being run on television, Mr. Ignatieff was talking about "rising up" and calling the Tories anti-democratic. He was repeatedly blown off message and seemed to come up with new themes almost daily, from concern-for-democracy to health care to wasted spending on the G8 and G20 summits. This confused voters.

Contrast this to the focused Tory message about jobs and the economy.

But so far, the Liberals are not yet directly blaming Mr. Ignatieff - there is a view that he has done an admirable job. The blaming may come on Tuesday, however, if the polls are correct.

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