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Harper on defensive in B.C. in face of Layton surge

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Campbell River, B.C. on Saturday April 23, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/ The Globe and Mail/Adrian Wyld/ The Globe and Mail

Stephen Harper aimed his campaign rally rhetoric at a different target Saturday night, warning voters in a northern Vancouver Island riding against backing a strengthened Jack Layton and his NDP.

It was a change from the first four weeks of the campaign when the Conservative Leader instead focused the brunt of his attack on Liberal rival Michael Ignatieff.

But with polls suggesting the NDP is in a statistical tie with the Liberals nationally, Mr. Harper's campaign found itself making a defensive play Saturday.

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The Tories normally visit ridings they don't hold but want to steal from rivals.

This time, however, they were visiting Vancouver Island North, a seat that's not always been easy for the Conservatives to win. In 2006 the Tories lost the riding to the NDP, only to gain it back in 2008.

"We're not under any illusion here, [the]main competition is the NDP," the Conservative Leader told a partisan crowd of about 400 in Campbell River, B.C.

Vancouver Island North is a sprawling riding covering more than 52,000 square kilometres, including northern Vancouver Island part of British Columbia's central coast.

The riding has suffered economically in the last half decade, bleeding forestry industry jobs as the sector retrenched.

The NDP poses a bigger threat in the final week of the campaign as opinion research suggests the New Democrats have gained support in some parts of Canada to find themselves in a statistical tie with the Liberals.

Talking to the Campbell River crowd Saturday night, Mr. Harper attacked the NDP's record in provincial governments, noting the Darrell Dexter government hiked sales taxes in Nova Scotia.

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"One of the first things the NDP did when they took power in Nova Scotia was to raise the HST [harmonized sales tax]there by two full percentage points," the Conservative Leader said.

"The only party that will keep the federal sales tax at 5 per cent is the Conservative Party."

The local Conservative candidate, Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan, played down the notion that rising NDP support in the polls is affecting his riding.

"I don't see an NDP surge here, he said of Vancouver Island North.

He said he's confident he can hold the seat.

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