The most recent polls paint a clear picture of the size of the challenge facing the Liberals, but the actual nature of the challenge is subtle and complex. It lies below the surface of the horse race numbers.
Roughly 60 per cent of Canadians don't want to vote for Stephen Harper's Conservatives. When these folks think there is a chance to replace the Conservatives with another government, some of them will consider voting for a party that isn't their first choice. This was, of course, the game plan of the Liberals in 2004, 2006, 2008 and lots of times in the last century, too.
However, if these voters conclude they are going to get a Conservative government regardless of how they vote, their thought process may change.
They may become focused on who they want to lead the daily charge against the government, to keep the next Harper government honest.
If we assume for the sake of argument that this is in effect the new ballot question for these voters, it's playing to Jack Layton's advantage. If the next 10 days is like an audition for the role of Opposition Leader, he may or may not win the role, but his screen test is already going pretty well.
First, he's the only one who's been campaigning for this job, and he's been at it for years. (He always says he's running to be PM, but no one believes that even he believes it). Lots of voters might not want him to run anything, but like him as a champion of the little guy.
He comes across to voters as an articulate, energetic, and genuine fellow. He's seen as a partisan, but also a nice guy. He can throw a hard punch, but he also smiles a lot.
Many of the voters I'm talking about are left of centre on the spectrum. Certainly they are almost all to the left of Stephen Harper. They would probably like the policy ideas that are contained in the Liberal platform, but the Family Pack has been getting little air play. Without having to study his platform, these voters know intuitively by now where Mr. Layton's values are. And again, they are not looking for a Layton government.
Gilles Duceppe doesn't ask to be Opposition Leader. He campaigns solely to defend Quebec's interests. But if Quebecers dislike Conservative governments, (and they lead the country in that category) voting BQ has proven completely futile at avoiding that outcome. It's logical that many would wonder if its not time to re-engage and consider a pan-Canadian party at some point, and equally logical that they would look for one with social democratic DNA.
Michael Ignatieff as Opposition Leader didn't make much of an impact on voters. He's campaigning better, but even he's been wondering aloud why his campaign isn't connecting with more voters. The risk for him is in that group of voters who prefer him to Stephen Harper as PM, but doubt he will win that race, and aren't sure he'd be the most effective Opposition Leader.
Ten days ago, conventional wisdom had it that the campaign was all but over, and nothing different would come of it. Today, new scenarios are created every hour or two. The safest bet is that there may be a turn or two left as voters start to think more seriously about the choice they will make on May 2. Until then, the fluctuations in the polls are the sound of people thinking out loud, not deciding.