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NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to supporters at a campaign rally in Ottawa on April 13, 2011.

PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

In the eight years he has been NDP Leader, Jack Layton's own personal popularity has propelled his party from fringe status in Quebec to a leading contender for the federalist vote.

Mr. Layton's ability to connect with Quebeckers is demonstrated in a new poll by Nanos Research which finds the New Democrat chief significantly ahead of rivals, including Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, on an index that measures attitudes toward leadership abilities.

"Jack Layton is the strongest federalist alternative in Quebec, hands down," Nik Nanos, the president of Nanos Research, said after the poll - a telephone survey of 700 Quebeckers conducted between April 6 and April 12 - was released Wednesday in advance of the French-language leaders' debate.

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"In terms of the federalist party leaders, he's got the biggest coattails," Mr. Nanos said.

The leadership index put Mr. Layton at 73.2, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper at 57.7, Mr. Duceppe at 48.2 and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff at 41.9.

Mr. Duceppe's numbers were significantly reduced because one aspect of leadership measured by the poll is vision for Canada. Mr. Duceppe, a separatist, does not do well on that score.

But the poll also suggests Quebeckers rank Mr. Layton, Mr. Harper and Mr. Duceppe to be virtually tied in terms of competence. And when it comes to trust, Mr. Layton is way head - drawing numbers that double those of his two closest rivals.

"What this does is really explain why Gilles Duceppe has had Jack Layton in his sights and last night's [English debate]was a case in point. And I think we're going to see more of that," Mr. Nanos said. "I think Jack Layton personally is a pretty big part of the NDP draw in Quebec."

In addition, he said, the policies of the NDP align well with those of Quebeckers. Those surveyed for Nanos Research by a call centre in Montreal listed health, jobs, environment and education as the four top interests of national concern - all items at the top of the NDP policy agenda.

A poll of this size is expected to reflect the broad attitudes of Quebec residents within 3.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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Henry Jacek, a political scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the New Democrats are doing particularly well among francophones in Quebec. "That population has policy views that, apart from independence and nationalism, is much closer to the NDP than another party," Prof. Jacek said.

In addition, he said, Mr. Layton has the advantage of speaking Quebecois French while Mr. Ignatieff has a Parisian accent and Mr. Harper's French is sometimes mangled. "In the French language debate," Prof. Jacek argued, "the first thing Quebeckers will do is listen how the person speaks."

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