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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair waves from a car after a rally on Tuesday in Surrey, B.C., where the NDP incumbent’s seat is threatened.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Thomas Mulcair says he opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a matter of principle. But the NDP Leader's harsh words for the massive trade deal are also an attempt to reach out to the farmers and the factory workers who can staunch the bleeding in support that has has put him in third place in the polls with less than two weeks until voting day.

It may also reassure long-time New Democrats who share a historic distrust of free-trade deals that he understands their trepidation, and invigorate party workers to give it their all on the final stretch of the campaign.

Mr. Mulcair's team has made much of the fact that he routinely holds rallies in ridings where the New Democrats hope to steal seats from the Conservatives. He did some of that on Sunday on a tour through Southwestern Ontario.

On Tuesday, however, the NDP Leader's only event was held in Surrey-Newton on B.C.'s Lower Mainland where NDP incumbent Jinny Sims could lose her seat to Liberal candidate Sukh Dhaliwal. Mr. Mulcair now must worry about holding the seats he's got before he can realistically search for places to make gains.

Nanos Research suggests support for the New Democrats has sunk to 23 per cent across the country – 11 percentage points behind the Liberals and eight points behind the Conservatives. The number of Canadians who say Mr. Mulcair is their preferred choice for prime minister has dropped by nine points in four weeks to its lowest level since the writ was dropped.

The three-day rolling poll of a total of 1,200 people is considered accurate within 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

When asked about the NDP's falling fortunes, and how his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal could turn things around, Mr. Mulcair said he is reminding Canadians that he is someone who does what he believes is right.

"Canadians do know that they can trust me to stand up for them, for their jobs, for their communities, and they can trust the NDP that they've known for a long time," Mr. Mulcair said. "I've been in public life for over 35 years and I've always stood on questions of principle."

His refusal to back down on a question of principle is what many believe is responsible for his party's free fall in the polls.

Mr. Mulcair's defence of an Ontario woman who wanted to wear the face-covering niqab at a citizenship ceremony put him at odds with a majority of voters in his stronghold of Quebec. The most recent Nanos survey says the NDP's support in Quebec has dropped by 20 percentage points – from 50 per cent to 30 per cent – since the second week of September, though the margin of error for the provincial sample is a relatively high plus or minus 6.2 percentage points.

Nik Nanos, the president of the polling company, said two things have to happen for the New Democrats to get back into the race. "First of all, [Mr. Mulcair] needs a galvanizing issue to put focus on himself and I think the NDP think the TPP is that galvanizing issue," Mr. Nanos said. "The second thing he needs is for Justin Trudeau and the Liberal campaign to make a mistake."

Mr. Mulcair cannot orchestrate a Liberal gaffe. But he can rail against a trade deal.

James Laxer, a political science professor at York University in Toronto who once ran for the leadership of the NDP, said Mr. Mulcair's anti-TPP message speaks to his base.

"By saying the things he's saying, and calling these things into question, he is reminding New Democrats that most trade deals are about capital and they tend to hurt labour. And that's something New Democrats believe," said Dr. Laxer, who said he agrees the deal will lead to the hollowing out of the auto sector.

In addition, Dr. Laxer said, the opposition to the deal will resonate in the manufacturing communities of Southern Ontario. "It gives Mulcair something important to reframe and refocus his campaign, which clearly he needs to do."

For his part, Mr. Mulcair said it is "false" to paint the NDP as being anti-free trade.

"We look for reciprocity, an even playing field. Is the partner a democracy? Does it respect rights? Is it respectful of the environment? Does it have tough rules? Does it respect labour? I don't want economic dumping but I don't want social dumping or environmental dumping either," he said. "We think that the deal is wrong."

It is a message Canadians can expect to hear often as voting day draws near.

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