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NDP Leader Tom Mulcair addresses supporters during a campaign stop in Montreal on Oct. 1, 2015.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The three-party tie in the race to form the next federal government appears to have ended, with a new poll showing the Liberals and Conservatives fighting for the lead and the New Democrats slipping to third as support softens in their stronghold of Quebec.

A three-day rolling poll of 1,200 randomly selected Canadians conducted by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail and CTV between Monday and Wednesday of this week suggests the Conservatives have the support of 32.8 per cent of voters while the Liberals have the support of 31.7 per cent. Given that the survey results are expected to reflect the opinions of the broader Canadian public within 2.8 percentage points 19 times out of 20, the two parties are neck and neck.

But Mr. Mulcair's New Democrats, who were ahead of their rivals in early September and locked in a statistical tie with them throughout most of the month, had the support of just 26.1 per cent of respondents. And in Quebec – where the poll's margin of error is 6.7 percentage points – the survey suggests NDP support has been whittled away to 34 per cent from a high of about 50 per cent in the second week of September. Most of that drift appears to have benefited the Conservatives.

The dip comes at a crucial moment for the NDP, which entered the long campaign for the Oct. 19 election with a real shot at forming government for the first time. The decline is believed to be related, at least in part, to leader Thomas Mulcair's defence of an Ontario woman who wants to swear her oath of Canadian citizenship with her face covered by a niqab.

Mr. Mulcair will get another chance to sell Quebec voters on the rightness of his position on Friday night, when he faces off against Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe in the final debate of the campaign.

But NDP officials say they are shifting the tone of their message on the thorny issue of the niqab, trying to change the perception in Quebec that the party favours or even promotes the controversial religious garb. Support for the party started to slide last week after the release of the costing of its platform and a French-language debate in which the niqab issue was raised.

"For the New Democrats, the trend line has been working against them over the last six to seven days of tracking," Nik Nanos, president of the polling company, said in a telephone interview. The NDP is "not out of the race by any stretch," Mr. Nanos added. "But they have to get back in the pack."

NDP officials admit the party has taken a beating over the niqab, which they feel is a political distraction that has nonetheless galvanized support for their rivals in Quebec. In media interviews all week, NDP candidates have openly expressed their "unease" over what they call a "symbol of oppression," trying to undo the damage caused by headlines that said the NDP "supports the niqab."

Overall, the NDP has not changed its official position supporting the right of women to wear the face-covering veil when they swear their oath of citizenship, but the goal has been to showcase support for Quebeckers, including feminists and progressives, who disagree with the party on the matter.

"We have not changed our position, but we have changed the way we address the issue," an NDP organizer in Quebec said this week.

In media interviews this week, the NDP candidate in Hull-Aylmer, Nycole Turmel, and Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie, Alexandre Boulerice, both distanced themselves from the niqab while defending the party's policy.

"I have worked all my life in favour of the equality of men and women," Ms. Turmel said in a radio debate. "I have said, and will repeat, that I am ill at ease when I see someone wearing a niqab."

Mr. Boulerice called the niqab "disturbing."

"We have the same feeling, the same discomfort, as everyone else on this matter," he said in a radio interview in Montreal. "I understand and share this feeling."

A few lesser known candidates have criticized the official line, only to be reined in. The NDP candidate in Joliette, Danielle Landreville, was quoted in a local paper on Tuesday raising questions about the party's policy on citizenship ceremonies.

She later issued a statement that reiterated her support for the NDP policy, while adding that "as a feminist, the wearing of the niqab torments me."

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