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NDP Leader Jack Layton at a campaign stop in Montreal on March 31, 2011. (SHAUN BEST)
NDP Leader Jack Layton at a campaign stop in Montreal on March 31, 2011. (SHAUN BEST)

NDP weakens amid talk of a two-way race Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff is trying to turn this election into a two-man race. Stephen Harper may be ready to let him.

As the Liberal and Conservative leaders chest-thumped over whether and how to conduct a one-on-one leadership debate, only to have the idea nixed by the consortium of networks that would host it, the daily Nanos Research poll for The Globe and Mail and CTV revealed that the real victim of this debate-about-a-debate was NDP Leader Jack Layton, whose leadership profile is diminishing.

The daily tracking poll by Nanos shows that both the Conservatives and Liberals are performing strongly. Mr. Harper's Leadership Index score - a compendium of how voters gauge the trustworthiness, competence and vision of the federal party leaders - has climbed steadily since mid-March, to an impressive 105 in the poll conducted March 30.

Mr. Ignatieff is far behind at 46. But that number represents a modest and stable improvement over where he was two weeks ago (40), while Mr. Layton's score has dropped from 51 in mid-March to 40.

These findings are reflected in the overall popularity of the three parties, which have the Conservatives holding steady at 39-per-cent support, the Liberals improving their position to 33 per cent, and the NDP's down four points to 16 per cent.

These are early days, and these trends are tentative and reversible. But they suggest that an increasing number of voters agree that they must choose between a government led by Mr. Harper - which he says must be a majority - or face the alternative: a government led by Mr. Ignatieff.

Traditionally, a strong NDP showing boosts Conservative fortunes by siphoning votes from the Liberals. But this election could be different.

The Conservatives are targeting specific seats that they hope will bring them the net gain of 12 that they need to form a majority. At least five of those seats are NDP-held ridings in Northern Ontario, British Columbia and Edmonton. Suppressing the national NDP vote could help turn those ridings Tory.

As well, the Conservative calculation may be that in any head-to-head contest between Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff - whether in a debate or throughout the entire campaign - the veteran Conservative Leader is bound to win over the rookie Liberal.

"That's the rationale that could be behind the Conservative strategy in this campaign," pollster Nik Nanos believes.

The nature of the NDP campaign, whose pace is slower than in previous years, may also be a factor.

On Thursday, Mr. Layton made only one appearance before the national media. Even the most laid-back leader's tour generally entails an address at two or more public venues.

New Democratic officials maintain that Canadians know Jack Layton and there is no need for him to parade through four and five events a day.

But his health is a also factor.

Mr. Layton says he is feeling better every day after hip surgery in early March and a bout with prostate cancer last year. His doctor, he said, has approved his return to cardiovascular exercise. But he is walking slowly and with a cane. And he still has the gaunt pallor of a man who has faced a serious illness.

Mr. Harper may also calculate he can double that political benefit by continuing to paint the Liberal Leader as the face of a Liberal/NDP/Bloc-Québécois coalition, even though all three opposition leaders have ruled it out.

At a campaign rally in St. John's Thursday, Mr. Harper continue to pound that theme.

After the election, "there will either Mr. Ignatieff, put in power by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois," or "a strong, stable majority Conservative government," he predicted.

That's a dichotomy that relegates the NDP to the role of prop. Mr. Layton will do everything he can through the rest of the campaign to reverse that impression.

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