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Will NDP's West Coast surge pay off for Tories?

NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to supporters at a town hall meeting on April 20, 2011 in Thunder Bay.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

With the Conservative lead crumbling in British Columbia late last week, Stephen Harper was stumping around the Lower Mainland through the weekend in the swath of suburban Vancouver he will need to inch past the majority mark.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff started this week with high hopes in B.C., with former prime minister Paul Martin joining him Sunday in vulnerable Vancouver South, a riding won by a mere 20 votes in 2008.

Five days later, the campaign in B.C. has turned on its heel, with the Tories regaining their footing in B.C. and the Liberals in seeming freefall. Driving that change was the invisible presence of NDP Leader Jack Layton. He hasn't been in B.C. for nearly two weeks, but the Layton effect most assuredly has.

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The NDP is surging to popularity levels it hasn't enjoyed in decades in British Columbia, ever since the rise of the Reform Party decimated its seat count and popular support in the 1993 election.

Mr. Layton's breezy smile of a campaign, and a vow to drive a stake through the heart of the hated HST, has his New Democrats leapfrogging the Liberals, although the Conservatives are now comfortably in first place provincewide. The NDP surge could still be growing: An Ipsos Reid poll released Thursday evening had the party in second place nationally, and at 32 per cent in B.C., with the Conservatives at 46 per cent - and the Liberals at a mere 12 per cent, barely ahead of the Green Party.

It's not yet clear who will ultimately benefit from the musical-chairs effect - make that musical-seats effect - of the NDP's sudden and sharp jump in popular support. The Conservatives are vulnerable in some head-to-head contests with the New Democrats, but elsewhere the main effect of the rise in NDP numbers could be to tip tottering Liberal ridings to the Tories.

In an election in which the Conservatives remain a few crucial seats short of a majority, the final result of that confusing electoral melee could prove decisive. "It may well be that it comes down to B.C.," NDP deputy leader Libby Davies said Thursday.

Mr. Layton's early promise to let British Columbia keep $1.6-billion in HST transitional funds has given the party first call on the still-simmering public anger over the imposition of the tax, which drove B.C. Liberal premier Gordon Campbell from office. Now, the New Democrats are using the closed-door deal that led to the HST as Exhibit A in the case that the Conservatives have abandoned their Reformer roots. "This is the kind of thing that gets grassroots populists upset," Mr. Layton said.

Ms. Davies claims that not just urban swing ridings, but some Conservative strongholds (such as Prince George-Peace River in the B.C. Interior) are up for grabs. In 1988, the NDP won the adjacent riding, Prince George-Bulkley Valley, but it went to the Reform Party in 1993.

The NDP is likely being overly optimistic in hoping to capture Prince George-Peace River, said pollster Greg Lyle. Barring a complete meltdown by the Tories, it is unlikely that such Conservative bastions will fall to the NDP.

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Mr. Lyle, managing director at Innovative Research Group, said a much more likely scenario is an NDP victory in Surrey North, where Conservative incumbent Dona Cadman scraped out a narrow win in 2008, or in Vancouver Island North, where there is a clear two-way race between the NDP and the Tories.

However, the Tories can also hope to benefit indirectly from the jump in NDP support and offset those losses. A resurgent NDP vote that ate into Liberal support could be enough to tip ridings like Vancouver South to the Conservatives.

Other observers, with estimates of softer Conservative support, are predicting outright losses for the party. Under a seat projection from EKOS Research released Thursday, the NDP would gain two seats in B.C., for a total of 11, while the Conservatives would lose three and the Liberals would gain two.

Assuming the NDP support doesn't move much higher or lower, Mr. Lyle said he believes the Tories will benefit slightly, with a likely net gain of one seat - and a much easier win for Conservative Gary Lunn in Saanich-Gulf Islands, who should outpoll his challengers, including Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. "Gary Lunn is probably the happiest Conservative in the country," Mr. Lyle said.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version contained incorrect information about which party won the riding of Prince George-Peace River in 1988. This online version has been corrected.

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