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Dennis Bevington (Adrian Wyld)
Dennis Bevington (Adrian Wyld)

Sensing NDP vulnerable in NWT, Harper and Ignatieff head north Add to ...

Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff are leaving the suburbs and heading north - way north - Sunday night as both the Conservative Leader and the Liberal Leader are scheduled to arrive in Yellowknife.

Both parties clearly view the two-term New Democratic Party candidate, MP Dennis Bevington, as vulnerable in the Northwest Territories.

These will be the first visits of any of the national leaders to the territories so far in the campaign, where some potentially close races are shaping up.

As Prime Minister, Mr. Harper speaks regularly about the importance of arctic sovereignty and he tours the territories every summer. Yet one of the key issues in these three ridings will be whether Mr. Harper's subsequent actions lived up to his promises.

Mr. Bevington wrestled the sprawling Western Arctic riding from Liberal Ethel Blondin-Andrew in 2006. In that winter campaign, NDP leader Jack Layton ventured north for a dog-sledding outing with Mr. Bevington, a high-profile campaign stop that clearly paid off.

The NDP has yet to confirm whether Mr. Layton will visit the territories this campaign. However Mr. Layton is planning to unveil a northern platform in the next few days.

Prior to 2006, the three territories - which are also divided as three federal ridings - were Liberal strongholds. But after the NDP's 2006 breakthrough, Conservative Leona Aglukkaq managed to win a tight race in Nunavut in 2008.

That leaves the Liberals with Yukon, where Larry Bagnell has held the riding since 2000. The Conservatives have tried their best to make the long-gun registry an issue in the territories and are hoping that pays off on election day.

The small populations in the north mean a few thousand votes can turn a riding. But reaching voters is a logistical and financial challenge, given the remoteness of many communities.

For their part, the Liberals aren't throwing up their hands.

The party has two former premiers running to win back those two seats: Joe Handley in Western Arctic and Paul Okalik in Nunavut.

Despite the Liberals' two high-profile candidates, they will still face a big challenge to win back voters.

In 2008, the Liberals dropped to third place in Western Arctic. The Conservatives were a close second to Mr. Bevington. This time the Conservative candidate is Sandy Lee, a former territorial health minister.

In Nunavut, Ms. Aglukkaq won in 2008 with 2,815 votes, followed by 2,349 votes for the Liberal candidate and 2,228 votes for the NDP. While the Liberals now have a higher-profile candidate, they will have to compete with the fact that Ms. Aglukkaq has represented the riding in the high-profile health portfolio.

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