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NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks about Canada's role in Afghanistan at the Universoty of Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2011. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks about Canada's role in Afghanistan at the Universoty of Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2011. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Scrappy Jack Layton besieged on two fronts Add to ...

Never before has the future of the NDP under Jack Layton's leadership been more on the line.

Mr. Layton is in Cranbrook, B.C., Monday, part of his national tour in advance of Parliament's return next week. Tuesday he campaigns at the opposite end of the country, in Dartmouth, N.S. After the tour comes a caucus retreat. And a few weeks after that comes a decision.

If Mr. Layton wants to avoid forcing an election, then he has to find a way of accepting whatever the Conservatives offer as an incentive in their March budget, no matter how thin the gruel might be.

One sign that the NDP is still willing to work with the government came on the weekend, with word that the party will support new Conservative legislation to make it easier to make a citizen's arrest. But it will be over money, not guns, that this government lives or dies.

If an election does come, Mr. Layton will be in the fight of his life. The NDP had one of its best results in 2008, winning 18 per cent of the popular vote and gaining eight new seats. Since then support has drifted downward to around 16 per cent.

Mr. Layton is a formidable campaigner and might well make up the difference. Or he might not. This is his fourth, and probably last, election campaign. He has led the party for eight years. He is 60, and was diagnosed with prostate cancer, though he says treatments have gone well and he is healthy. In the heat of the next election campaign, will the old fire still be there?

The split within caucus over the gun registry has left his rural MPs vulnerable. There are a dozen NDP seats in Northern Ontario, the Prairies and B.C. that the Conservatives believe could fall, thanks to Mr. Layton's successful efforts to save the registry in the face of opposition from many of his own MPs.

But that's not his biggest problem. The Liberals have concluded that the Conservative core vote - which they put at 30 per cent of voters, though it could actually be higher - can't be eroded.

Electoral success, then, can only come from (a) bringing out the 800,000 Liberal supporters who sat on their hands in 2008, and (b) convincing NDP voters that they must switch to the Liberals to stop Stephen Harper from winning yet another term.

This is a dangerous game. When Liberals try to win away NDP voters, they usually fail. Success most often comes from enticing voters to abandon the Conservatives.

Nonetheless, that's the game plan. So Mr. Layton will be under attack from both the Conservatives, in targeted, mostly rural ridings, and the Liberals, across the board.

And Michael Ignatieff, while personally less popular than either Mr. Layton or Mr. Harper, is still no Stéphane Dion. He has been relentlessly campaigning since July and his party's finances are in better shape than they were.

One place to watch will be Outremont. Thomas Mulcair, the party's deputy leader and an obvious potential successor to Mr. Layton, took and then held the former Liberal bastion in Montreal. This time he will face Martin Cauchon, a former cabinet minister in the Jean Chrétien government and a powerful, well-organized opponent. The NDP desperately wants to keep Outremont, but it will be a tough fight.

All in all, it's hard to see how the NDP will be able to hold its vote and its seat count in the face of such an assault. But it's a rash critic who would count Mr. Layton out. He is a scrappy, experienced politician who loves the cut and thrust of a campaign. The next election may be his last hoorah, but it will be some hoorah.

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