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Tories try new tactic in Edmonton battleground - a cry for help

Two Rooms restaurateur Connie John at her restaurant in Edmonton's Old Strathcona neighbourhood, which forms the heart of Alberta's sole NDP riding.

With the town-hall debates a thing of the past, the race in Alberta's lone non-Tory riding now boils down to a door-knocking contest. And the local Conservative has a blunt assessment of how it's going.

"We're losing."

Ryan Hastman is shouldering the hopes of the federal Conservative Party, which desperately wants to take back Edmonton-Strathcona , the only one of 28 Alberta ridings they don't hold. But to do so, he'll have to knock off New Democrat Linda Duncan.

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It will be a challenge. The riding is among the most liberal in the province, and includes much of the city's arts community and the sprawling University of Alberta. Along the riding's trendy Whyte Avenue strip, "Linda" is a household name.

A vote split, meanwhile, is a minimal risk; a "Liberals for Linda" campaign emerged in 2008, and the Liberals are only barely mounting a campaign this year.

It's effectively a Hastman-Duncan race.

The two have done joint interviews and attended a pair of debates early this week - the only ones Mr. Hastman plans to attend. Instead, he'll now focus on going door to door, and issued a plea for help to his supporters over the weekend.

"We're giving it our best. But to be honest, we're losing. I need help," he wrote in the e-mail, first obtained by the Edmonton Journal, adding later: "This is going to be a tough race. Honestly if tomorrow was election day, we'd probably lose. The NDP are well organized, motivated and have a huge team. I see their campaign in action every day."

He cast it as a strategy to motivate his base to try and overtake Ms. Duncan by election day.

"I think it was [former premier]Ralph Klein who said always campaign like you're five votes down," he said in an interview from his campaign office, before leaving for his daily seven hour door knocking blitz.

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"We're going flat-out to election day. I do think we're going to win."

The e-mail worked, he said, flooding his campaign office with offers of help. Both campaigns are also claiming a spike in interest following the leaders' debates.

"We're having people coming in today saying I've never voted NDP in my life," Ms. Duncan said, adding she has been swamped lately with forums and interviews and will be focusing on the so-called ground game for much of the remainder of the campaign.

"If I can get out door-knocking more, I'd love to do that," she said Wednesday between events. "You just keep at it every day."

Mr. Hastman's strategy of portraying himself as an underdog is solid, said Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at Edmonton's MacEwan University.

"It's a good strategy, first of all, to prevent any complacency on the part of his workers, and to send out the message that they need any help he can get. Because the conservatives, federally, really want that riding," Prof. Mensah said.

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The riding, however, will boil down to the ground game and whether Ms. Duncan can rally Liberals, New Democrats and Greens.

"I believe this is going to come down to the voting behaviour of traditional Liberal supporters in that riding. Because the Conservatives will come out. They want to defeat her. So it's really up to her to swing voters in that riding," Prof. Mensah said.

She acknowledges it will be a turnout battle. Her team - with the school term ending - scheduled a bus to ferry people from the university to polling stations to cast special advance ballots, and pressured the city to keep open a key road in the riding so as not to discourage turnout on the May 2nd vote.

"We just hope there won't be a snowstorm," Ms. Duncan said.

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