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Editorial cartoon by Brian GableThe Globe and Mail

It's question that will be top of mind for many New Democrats as they choose a successor to Jack Layton: Who can defeat the most Conservatives in the next federal election?

Keeping the Bloc Québécois in the political hinterland is imperative for the NDP, as is ensuring the Liberals do not mount a resurgence. But New Democrats cannot form government without taking seats away from Stephen Harper and his Conservatives, as the candidates made clear to The Globe and Mail ahead of the March 24 leadership vote.

British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen is staking his candidacy on a controversial proposal to co-operate with Liberals as a means of unseating Tory MPs. This would entail joint nomination meetings with the Liberals and the Greens in ridings held by Conservatives.

Mr. Cullen admits he's having trouble convincing some long-time New Democrats that his plan is the best way forward. But the party must remain open to the conversation, he said, or face the prospect of another Conservative majority.

"Just by the numbers, we know that if we beat every remaining Liberal and Bloc we still don't have enough to form government," he said. "So we have to take out Conservatives."

The other candidates, at this point, are talking more about policy and less about strategy. But they too acknowledge that large chunks of Conservative turf must be won in 2015 if they are to have a shot at the Prime Minister's Office.

Brian Topp, the former party president, said the most vulnerable Tory MPs are those who have recently taken seats from other parties (read the Liberals), especially in the 905 region around Toronto, in industrial Ontario, and in the suburbs of larger cities that are home to significant immigrant communities.

Mr. Topp said he would capitalize on the numerous issues "bungled" by the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper that are of immediate concern to those communities, "like family reunification and foreign credentials."

Thomas Mulcair, the MP who won the breakthrough seat for the New Democrats in Quebec, said he would appeal to all Canadians whose primary goal is to oust Conservatives.

"We do it by reconnecting in areas where we've lost touch," Mr. Mulcair said. "Millions of Canadians share our goals and our values, but we need to connect with them in ways they can relate with and prove to them that we can lead a progressive and pragmatic government."

Paul Dewar, the MP for Ottawa Centre, said he would create winning conditions by focusing on key battlegrounds, creating financial incentives, and offering expertise to help local campaigns raise funds.

Mr. Dewar said he would also hire community organizers in regions like Quebec where the NDP has seen gains, and in areas targeted for growth, including British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Southern Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

Peggy Nash, a Toronto MP and another former party president, said Canadians already trust the NDP on social issues so, if the party is to win in ridings now held by the Conservatives, it must convince voters that it is capable of managing the economy.

"Even people who are making decent salaries are feeling more and more squeezed," Ms. Nash said, " and we are the party that wants to reduce inequality."

And Niki Ashton, the MP from the northern Manitoba riding of Churchill, said she would reach out to traditional bases of NDP support, including Canadians who are worried about the erosion of their standard of living. But she also sees the need to break through to the ethno-cultural communities which have traditionally divided their support between Conservatives and Liberals.

Romeo Saganash, a Cree leader who is a rookie MP from Quebec, pointed to a recent opinion piece in which he said the party must offer more support to ridings that have smaller party associations.

And Martin Singh, a Nova Scotia pharmacist who is also running for the leadership, did not return a request for comment.