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NDP's Layton fends off questions about modest crowds Add to ...

This was to be the day that Jack Layton proved he could muster the crowd and the enthusiasm to demonstrate that his campaign has momentum.

While the other party leaders took a break from campaigning, Mr. Layton's rally at a room attached to a Halifax arena was attended by about 400 people – the biggest the New Democrats have seen so far on this campaign. And there was much enthusiasm for the NDP Leader who has hobbled across the country on crutches this week after recent hip surgery.

Yet, the New Democrats failed to deliver a huge crowd by election campaign standards. And the people who did turn up to see Mr. Layton were largely NDP supporters, staff members in Nova Scotia’s NDP provincial government, and former members of the Canadian Forces who had been invited to listen to his announcement about what the party would do for veterans.

There were not the large numbers of unaffiliated left-leaning voters - the so-called Layton Liberals who are the target audience of the NDP - that could give the party a boost in the House of Commons.

When asked about the modest size of the crowd, Mr. Layton responded with unusual exasperation.

“Oh come on!” he said during a grilling by reporters. “Pardon me for disagreeing with you .... We filled a good-sized room with very enthusiastic people. I am just thrilled by the turnout that we had here, especially by the veterans who came out to support our policies.”

The event included a surprise appearance by Pat Stogran, the retired Canadian Forces colonel who led a battalion when Canada first went into Afghanistan in 2001 and who was more recently the federal veterans' ombudsman

Mr. Stogran had a falling out with the Conservative government that appointed him over the compensation it was offering to former members of the Canadian Forces. He was outspoken in defence of veterans and he was not reappointed.

He talked to the crowd about the “failed policies” of the “so-called government.”

The New Democrats say they would end pension reductions for retired and disabled veterans, restore an income-security insurance plan for former members of the Forces, overhaul the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, hold a public inquiry into the use of the defoliant Agent Orange at CFB Gagetown, and help veterans move to construction and building trades.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper “promised to stand up for our veterans, and instead he’s shamefully turned his back on those that bravely served their country,” Mr. Layton told the crowd.

“Under Stephen Harper, Canada’s veterans are forced to fend for themselves.”

After the speech, Mr. Layton has found himself fending off questions about a seeming lack of energy during the first week of this campaign. There have been fewer stops per day and the crowd seem smaller than in 2008 - an impression his handlers indignantly refute.

With the possibility that left-leaning voters might strategically slide to Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals to prevent a Conservative majority, Mr. Layton must convince them to stay in the fold.

“I think we’ve been off to a good start,” Mr. Layton said of the first week of the campaign. “Our goal was to lay out the real alternative that exists in this election between the kind of approach to leadership that we are seeing from Mr. Harper. Very divisive, not bringing people together at all, versus what we’re offering to Canadians...”

Nova Scotia, and the Halifax area in particular, is a stronghold of NDP support. It is the home riding of former party leader Alexa McDonough and New Democrat Darrell Dexter is the Premier.

The party holds two of the five Halifax area seats. Megan Leslie is the incumbent in the riding of Halifax and Peter Stoffer has Sackville-Easter Shore. But they have serious designs on South Shore-St. Margaret's, which is now a Conservative seat, and on Dartmouth-Cole Harbour, which is now held by Liberals Mike Savage.

The rally Saturday was held in the riding and the party is running a star candidate, Robert Chisholm, who was the provincial opposition leader for the New Democrats from 1991 to 2003.

Mr. Layton didn’t mention the HST during his speech here in Nova Scotia, where a former Liberal government introduced the harmonized tax and the NDP hiked it by two percentage points.

Mr. Layton was deeply critical of the Conservative government in British Columbia and the Liberal government in Ontario for signing on to the HST. But NDP Premier Darrell Dexter on Nova Scotia has made sure that it was not applied to home heating, a measure that makes it acceptable, Mr. Layton told reporters.

The policies he has unveiled so far mostly duplicate announcements the party has made previously, either during previous elections or in private member’s bills new Democrats have introduced in Parliament.

When asked if he would be telling Canadians anything new over the next 30 days, Mr. Layton said the problem is that the Conservative government has rejected NDP policies.

“We tend to stick with things like, for example, medicare and improving our health-care system,” he said. “We’re sticking with them until they become the law of the land. I am excited about the fact that we are continuing to drive home those key issues that Canadians feel so strongly about.”

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