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NDP fortunes rise in B.C. at Liberals' expense

Signs for the NDP candidate for Vancouver South Meena Wong are seen alongside signs for Liberal rival Ujjal Dosanjh. Vancouver, April 24, 2011.

Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail/brett beadle The Globe and Mail

Since she first ran for the federal Liberals in 1993, Hedy Fry has been unbeatable. She has won six straight elections in her Vancouver Centre stronghold, knocking over such formidable past opponents as Kim Campbell, Svend Robinson and former MLA Lorne Mayencourt.

Greg Okun has always been in her corner. Not this time. Next Monday, Mr. Okun, a 45-year old music industry worker, will be voting NDP.

"I want to make more of a forget about local candidates and vote for national reasons," he explained, groceries in hand, on a rainy Sunday afternoon in the West End. "I would like to see the NDP have more influence in Parliament. I think Jack Layton is more trustworthy."

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Polls show he is not alone. NDP support is climbing dramatically in the province, mostly at the expense of the Liberals, possibly jeopardizing all of the party's remaining five seats in B.C.

Ironically, that could help the Conservatives' bid for a majority, if incumbent Liberals bleed too much to the NDP, but some Tory seats may also be at risk, as well.

With a week left, leaders are changing their strategies.

Stephen Harper made a special trip to Vancouver Island North Saturday night to rally support for long-time Tory MP John Duncan, who is facing the wrath of voters angry about the government's handling of the halibut fishery. At the rally, Mr. Harper launched a direct attack against the NDP.

"We're not under any illusion here, [the]main competition is the NDP," the Conservative Leader told a partisan crowd of about 400 in Campbell River. He warned voters not to trust the NDP.

That warning was for voters like Ken Jenkins, 64, operator of a fishing charter business in Port Hardy, who has voted Conservative all his adult life. On May 2, for the first time, he intends to cast a ballot for the NDP.

"I'm really going to have to hold my nose to do it [vote NDP] but we have to fix things," Mr. Jenkins said.

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Overall, however, pollster Mario Canseco of Angus Reid Public Opinion says the NDP surge is likely to most damage the Liberals in B.C.

"It's really a fight for them now. A shift to the NDP could deliver those seats to the Tories, because it would mean a bigger split in the left-centre vote."

Even Ms. Fry could be in trouble, Mr. Canseco said. "Such a thought would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago."

Mr. Canseco said polls confirm a significant movement to the NDP. His organization's latest poll has the NDP at 32 per cent in B.C. up from 26 per cent in 2008. The Liberals have dipped to 18 per cent, though the party is holding at 26 per cent in Metro Vancouver.

"The momentum to the NDP started to happen right after the debates," he said. "People are looking at Layton and thinking: 'Here's a leader who might fight for me.'"

British Columbia's many diverse ridings make it difficult to predict how the NDP boost will play out in the final results. Few Tory seats are threatened, and the Liberals hold only five ridings in the province. Those are the key battlegrounds where Mr. Layton's sudden burst of popularity may be key.

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Over coffee at the busy Champlain Heights shopping mall in Vancouver South, where Liberal incumbent Ujjal Dosanjh is in a tough fight with Tory challenger Wai Young, Dave Lawson, normally a Conservative supporter, said Mr. Layton's strong performance is causing him to waver a bit.

"For many years, I wouldn't give two bits for the NDP, but Layton is talking about doing things that the public thinks will be good for them," Mr. Dawson said. "And he's sick, eh, but he's pushing through it. I just wonder where are they going to get the money to pay for things."

Outside, as he lugged a couple of shopping bags to his car, pensioner Anver Kassam said he's leaning to vote NDP, after voting Liberal in 2008. "I like what they say about senior pensions and all. I have to think about my future."

As in Vancouver Centre, it would take a miracle for the NDP to rebound from weak third-place finishes to take it all in Vancouver South, but campaign manager Brenton Walters said he's noticed the NDP surge.

"The last few days, it's been very easy on the doorstep. Before that, it was tough. Now, it's about as good as it gets," said Mr. Walters.

"How did this happen?" marvelled Mr. Canseco, the pollster. "Jack Layton might even finish second this time. A few weeks ago, no one would have predicted this."

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