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letter from alberta

NDP candidate Ray Martin talks with Edmonton resident Alan Kellogg on April 25, 2011.Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail

There are only days left in the federal campaign - so what is Jack Layton doing in conservative Alberta?

The popular New Democratic Leader will host a rally in Edmonton Wednesday evening, five days before the vote.

What appears to be a bid to hold onto its one Alberta seat is, however, an attack: Mr. Layton is coming because party officials think they can make gains and win as many as three seats in the provincial capital - Edmonton-Strathcona, Edmonton East and Edmonton Centre.

"We've been targeting three seats since the beginning," says Lou Arab, the party's Alberta campaign manager. "Jack is coming to rally the troops and give us a push in the final week of the campaign."

Over the course of the past three elections, the NDP have surged in those three ridings, growing their combined vote total by 77 per cent between 2004 and 2008 to just over 40,000.

The Liberals, meanwhile, have collapsed, plummeting 58 per cent over the same period to a scant 21,500 votes.

As such, Mr. Layton's party has emerged as the de facto anti-Conservative option for Edmonton voters, who are the province's most centrist and left-leaning (provincial conservatives often deride the city as "Redmonton").

"We're running bigger campaigns than we've ever run before," Mr. Arab said.

But to win all three seats, they'd need closer to 60,000 total votes spread across the ridings.

And if they're to make those gains, Mr. Layton is hardly a white knight. He will need to tread a delicate line between his aspirations in Quebec, where he has criticized the oil sands, and Alberta, where such comments will quickly tank his support.

Linda Duncan, the lone Alberta NDP MP who is seeking re-election in Edmonton-Strathcona, was hung out to dry by Mr. Layton during his last stop in the city, at the beginning of the campaign - he didn't mention the energy sector in Alberta, only to turn around and criticize the oil sands in a Quebec speech days later.

All it did was give Conservative incumbents ammunition against local New Democrats.

"You can't fly over and threaten the oil-sands development in Fort McMurray. You just can't," said Conservative Peter Goldring, a veteran MP facing a challenge from former provincial NDP leader Ray Martin in the riding of Edmonton East. Mr. Layton's vision would be "catastrophic" for the oil sands, Mr. Goldring said.

So, it's up to Mr. Layton to tread carefully, but his strategy is clear; he hopes to use his personal popularity to extend the NDP's national rise to Edmonton.

"Whether they call it the NDP surge, the orange wave, the orange crush or whatever it's going to be called - it's definitely here in Edmonton," said Lewis Cardinal, 49, the Edmonton Centre candidate whose bid, complicated by an incumbent Tory and a well-organized Liberal campaign, is something of a long shot.

"I'm not trying to jinx anything; I'm just saying: 'You know what? The momentum is here.' The wave has reached Alberta, and it's now crashing onto the shore. I'm excited about that."