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NDP goes deep behind enemy lines in quest to slay Tory majority

NDP Leader Jack Layton campaigns in Montreal.

Shaun Best/Reuters

If you listen to Jack Layton long enough, you might start to believe that the New Democrats - the party that was little more than a fringe element in Quebec until the middle of the last decade - are about to make a breakthrough in this province.

What, other than a meteoric rise in support, could have convinced Mr. Layton on Thursday to take his campaign tour to the riding of Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie in Montreal, a place where Bernard Bigras of the Bloc Québécois won with more than 50 per cent of the vote in 2008 and where the NDP came in third, more than 18,000 votes behind the victor?

On Friday, the NDP tour heads to more friendly ground - the riding of Sudbury in Northern Ontario. There, New Democrat Glenn Thibeault defeated incumbent Liberal Diane Marleau by about 3,000 votes in the last election. But the Conservative wasn't far behind and many people believe the Tories could make a breakthrough. So it makes sense that Sudbury would be on Mr. Layton's itinerary.

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But Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie? Or Bramalea-Gore-Malton, northwest of Toronto, where Mr. Layton stopped on Wednesday and where, if any party has a chance of defeating the incumbent Liberals, it would seem to be the Conservatives?

Mr. Layton is nothing but an optimist. And he does not take kindly to those who reject the image of his party as giant slayer.

"We are the party that has expanded here," he said during the Montreal campaign stop. "When I became leader we had something under 2 per cent of the support of Quebeckers. We have ten times as many votes."

The party, he said, was told it could never win in Quebec. Then Thomas Mulcair won the Montreal riding of Outremont in a by-election.

"They said you can't win in a general election. And we won (Outremont) in a general election for the first time in our history and we came second in four additional ridings," Mr. Layton said. "We are now in a position where we have candidates ready to win in several ridings and a team of candidates across the province - and a visibility and support from Quebeckers, that is the highest level we've seen historically or certainly in a very long time."

It's support the New Democrats have gained, he said, by reflecting the values of Quebeckers in the House of Commons on issues like Afghanistan, the environment and the protection of the French language.

There is no doubt that the New Democrats have made gains. Some polls have put them above 20 per cent in Quebec and suggest they are running second to the Bloc Québécois.

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The party is running ads that tell Quebeckers Ottawa is broken and the only way to fix it is by voting NDP. One adorable spot has a hamster running in his cage for 15 seconds.

And the party is attracting high-profile candidates like Romeo Saganash, who has held top positions in the Grand Council of Crees, including Director of Quebec Relations and International Affairs, and will represent the New Democrats in Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou.

The message to Quebeckers is that only the NDP can stop a majority. "Our pitch to Bloc voters is we need to do more than that - we need to replace Stephen Harper with a prime minister who represents their values. That leader is Jack Layton," one party spokeswoman said.

Bernard Bigras "will never be in cabinet and therefore will never be able to stop the oil subsidies and clean up the environment," she said.

For his part, Mr. Layton keeps saying he is going to surprise people on voting day, May 2.

But is all this just bravado?

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Everyone knows this election is not like the one in 2008. For many left-leaning voters, the objective is to keep Stephen Harper and his Conservatives from winning a majority. That means ballots will be cast strategically. And some poll results this week suggest the NDP is suffering as a result.

One survey by Nanos Research had the Liberals climbing by four percentage points, almost all of them at the expense of Mr. Layton's party. The same poll showed the New Democrats sliding in Quebec.

The New Democrats still believe they have a shot at adding four Quebec ridings to their caucus.

In Gatineau, for instance, New Democrat Françoise Boivin, a former Liberal MP, was within 1,600 votes of the Bloc winner two years ago. Ms. Boivin is running again this time. She may benefit from strategic voting.

But other ridings that the NDP is big on would seem to be long shots.

In Hull -Aylmer, Nycole Turmel, the national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, is a strong candidate. But the party came third in 2008, with little more than half the votes Liberal Marcel Proulx got. So there is a lot of ground to make up.

In Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, Mr. Saganash has name recognition. But the party was a distant fourth in the last election.

And in Hochelaga in Montreal, a place the NDP considders a growth area, the New Democratic candidate ran second in a recent by-election. But he still garnered 19 per cent of the vote compared to 51 per cent that went to the Bloc.

Add strategic voting into the mix and Mr. Layton has his work cut out for him.

Even Mr. Mulcair isn't a sure thing; he is up against Martin Cauchon, a former Liberal cabinet minister.

Mr. Layton, nonetheless, said he is not about to rethink his strategy of going deep into enemy territory, where odds against him appear insurmountable.

"We are focused like a laser beam on defeating Conservatives across the country," he said. "Our teams, our candidates are building up heads of steam on the ground that are very impressive."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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