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NDP walking fine line in Quebec over pipeline, niqab issues

The NDP are trying to strike positions on the national stage that are sometimes harder to sell in Quebec.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Thomas Mulcair sat down in front of more than a million television viewers in Quebec, making a final mass-media pitch to the country's francophone voters to stick with the NDP as the dominant federal force in the province.

Appearing on the top-rated Tout Le Monde En Parle talk show on Sunday night, the NDP Leader knew full well that he faces different threats in different parts of Quebec. While the New Democrats' support is spread all over the province, the Liberals, Conservatives and Bloquistes are targeting specific regions to win back seats that were swept up in the 2011 Orange Wave.

As a result, Mr. Mulcair has been struggling to find compromise positions in response to sharp attacks from his rivals on issues such as the niqab or pipeline development. Regarding TransCanada Corp.'s Energy East project, Mr. Mulcair said on the program that his party was dead set against the project, which has faced stiff opposition in Quebec.

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"It's no to Energy East," Mr. Mulcair said firmly, before lamenting the environmental assessment process put in place by the Conservative government.

But the talk show's host, Guy A. Lepage, came back to the issue a few minutes later, asking Mr. Mulcair what would happen if a credible process was in place.

"We'd study it," Mr. Mulcair finally said.

The exchange highlighted the NDP's attempt to strike positions on the national stage that are sometimes harder to sell in Quebec. On the pipeline issue, the NDP is trying to find a middle ground between the Conservative Party and the Bloc Québécois, walking a fine line that sometimes seems like waffling.

The final French-language debate of the campaign was held on Friday night, with no clear winner emerging. As a result, battleground Quebec breaks down into four distinct races that pit the NDP against the other parties at this point, according to Youri Rivest of the CROP polling firm.

The Tories are especially strong in Quebec City and are challenging the NDP in the region surrounding the provincial capital. The Tories, Bloc and NDP are fighting it out in cities along the Saint Lawrence Valley and up into the Saguenay region. In the western half of greater Montreal and in suburbs to the south, the Liberals remain a force and may take back seats from the NDP.

In much of the rest of the province – such as the Abitibi and the North Shore – the Bloc and the NDP are wrestling over francophone voters who are looking for a place to park their votes away from both Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

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Mr. Rivest warned that electoral mapping has become very unpredictable since Quebec voters let go of their traditional Liberal and Bloc allegiances. The NDP holds two-thirds of the province's ridings after struggling for decades to crack double-digit popular support. A lot of recent hubbub has focused on the party's slide in Quebec, but it still leads in most polls.

"I think everything is in flux," Mr. Rivest said. "Voters who picked the NDP in 2011 and were steadfast until recently are up for grabs right now. The electorate is totally in play. The NDP has almost no base in the province and can fall fast."

"When there are four parties like that, at 25 per cent you get nothing and at 31 or 32 per cent, you get everything. So a rise of one or two percentage points can get you 10 or 15 ridings. We're in that zone right now."

While Mr. Rivest said the electorate is unpredictable, he believes the Liberals and Conservatives have the greatest potential upside. "The Bloc has rebounded, but I don't see a big attachment. Growth for the NDP will be difficult from here. Mr. Harper has never had an emotional link with Quebeckers, but they are happy with his management of the economy," he said. "Mr. Trudeau has a certain amount of momentum right now and he could become the refuge for people won don't like Harper if they start thinking the NDP is not the route." The Liberals are looking to regain the parts of its traditional base in and around Montreal that went to the NDP and the Bloc in 2011. "The West Island should favour the Liberals. Every riding that is less than two-thirds francophone should work in their favour," Mr. Rivest said.

On the stump in the LaSalle-Émard-Verdun riding that promises to be a three-way race, Liberal candidate David Lametti, a McGill law professor, said summertime indifference to the electoral campaign has finally given way to keen interest on the street. "People are moving, you can sense something at the door," he said. "Earlier in the campaign, they were saying they were going to wait and see. Now people are making decisions."

Anne Lagacé Dowson, a journalist running for the NDP in Papineau, says the electorate appears to be more interested in social and economic issues as the election approaches.

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"We've moved on to other things now," she said of the debate over the niqab.

Ms. Dowson is pushing her ability to pay undivided attention to the riding, which includes among the poorest urban areas in Canada, along with bread-and-butter issues like housing and employment insurance, as she tries to unseat Mr. Trudeau in his home base.

Polls show the Liberals do not seem to be suffering like the NDP over the niqab. "It seems to me the position is in the Liberal DNA. Multiculturalism, the tolerant Canada, peacekeeping – it's in their brand, in their DNA; nobody is surprised by their position," Mr. Rivest said. "Mr. Mulcair, people thought he and the NDP were close to their values but have discovered some of their values are very different."

With two weeks to go in the election, Mr. Mulcair is hoping his appearance on the talk show works the same magic for him as it did for his predecessor, Jack Layton, in 2011. Mr. Trudeau and Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe will make separate appearances on the show next Sunday, while Mr. Harper has declined to appear.

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