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Federal New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair speaks to the media on Tuesday in Mascouche, Que.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

It's a tight three-way race across the country, but the surging NDP is still struggling where it counts most, in Ontario. A new Nanos Research poll suggests Thomas Mulcair's party is running behind in Canada's most populous province.

It is a warning sign for the New Democrats, who since spring have enjoyed a wave of momentum and passed Justin Trudeau's Liberals in nation-wide opinion polls. Ontario's 121 seats represent more than a third of the House of Commons, so they are crucial to winning government.

Mr. Mulcair knows that: In July, just before the kickoff of the official election campaign, he embarked on an eight-day tour of Southern Ontario, stopping in such places as Mississauga, Scarborough and Brampton – the kinds of suburban ridings his party must gain to win power.

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But it is the Conservatives who hold a substantial lead in Ontario, as 37 per cent of those surveyed say they intend to vote for the party, according to the Nanos poll. The Liberals have 29 per cent and the NDP 26 per cent.

The NDP can take some consolation from the fact that it is in a statistical tie with the Liberals in the province due to the margin of error, which is larger, six percentage points, than in the national survey because of the smaller provincial sample.

But it's still the party's big challenge: Mr. Mulcair has been spreading the idea that the Quebec-centred Orange Wave of 2011 will hit the whole country this time, but so far, it hasn't washed over Ontario.

The New Democrats seem to have been struggling for years against that ceiling in Ontario, where opponents have portrayed them as risky and extreme. The NDP is still finding it tough to break into the race in many of the dozens of ridings in the outer Toronto-Hamilton suburbs, the big battleground for all three major parties.

NDP advisers insist they are targeting seats in the Greater Toronto Area that they can gain, mostly from the Conservatives, in inner-suburban ridings in Scarborough, Mississauga and elsewhere in Peel Region, as well as in ridings in Southwestern Ontario, where New Democrats made gains in the last provincial election. That's probably more winnable ground for the party than such outer GTA suburbs as Markham or Milton.

An Ontario breakthrough is still the crucial test for the Orange Wave. If voters cast their ballots on Oct. 19 along the lines of this Nanos survey, the NDP would hold most of their seats in Quebec and pick up seats in B.C. But without Ontario, they're unlikely to win the election.

The Nanos Research poll shows a tight three-way race for popular support across the country – the Conservatives at 31.2 per cent, the NDP at 30.4 per cent and the Liberals at 28.6 per cent – but it also finds vastly different races in different regions.

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The Conservatives' relative strength in Ontario, for example, means that in the race for seats, Stephen Harper's party is probably doing better than a three-way split. Their healthy lead suggests they'd reap the lion's share of the province's 121 seats. But their 37-per-cent support level in the poll is still below the 44 per cent of the Ontario vote they won in the 2011 election, when Mr. Harper formed a majority government by winning 73 of the province's 106 seats.

In Quebec, the NDP remains on top, with 39 per cent of the vote, but the Liberals have bounced back into a solid second, while the Bloc Québécois and Conservatives remain weak.

In British Columbia, the NDP has jumped out to a sizable lead. On the Prairies, the Conservatives remain way out in front, while the Liberals have a commanding lead in Atlantic Canada.

The specific numbers in those regional races should be taken as imprecise: Because of smaller sample sizes, the margins of error are relatively high, ranging from six percentage points for Ontario results to 10 percentage points in Atlantic Canada. Nevertheless, they provide an indication of where parties stand and show that the dynamics are very different in each region.

The national results, from a survey of 1,000 Canadians in a rolling four-week sample completed Aug. 7, are considered statistically accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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