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With the federal election entering its cliff-hanging final week, Canadians are confronting an important decision. Those who oppose the Conservatives need to be clear on the real differences between a New Democratic Party that is apparently growing in strength, and the Liberal Party.

The remarkable rise of the NDP is thanks primarily to Jack Layton, coming into his own in his fourth campaign. He has impressed many with his stamina, his sincerity, poise and ease on the stump, and his clear fondness for people and the art of politics, a quality needed in an era of increasing political cynicism. He's one politician Canadians would be happy to have a beer with; Michael Ignatieff would lose to Mr. Layton in the folksiness sweepstakes.

But behind Mr. Layton is a party and a plan that remain, in important ways, stuck in the past. Their promise to extend provincial language laws to federal institutions, and a vague commitment to reopen the Constitution, may win votes in Quebec – and that would be a welcome jolt to the party system there – but it is risky.

The fiscal prudence Mr. Layton often cites in his party's provincial brethren is nowhere in the NDP platform. One example was raised by Mr. Ignatieff in a meeting with The Globe editorial board on Sunday; the idea that the NDP could net $3.6-billion in immediate revenues from its proposed cap-and-trade system, without damaging the economy, defies credulity.

The Liberal Party remains broadly centrist. It proposes $8.2-billion in new spending in its first two years in office, primarily by eliminating a corporate tax cut in favour of investments in education. By contrast, the NDP promises to spend $29.5-billion. The Liberals also have a track record of stewardship of the economy and national finances that the NDP lacks. The Liberals helped create our stable banking system; the NDP wants to over-regulate the sector with credit-card interest-rate caps.

While Canadians still need to learn more about Mr. Ignatieff, he is a passionate advocate of equality of opportunity, and for protecting Canada's democracy. These two positions could endear him as much to those Red Tories looking for a place to cast their vote as to the voters the NDP covets.

There is, in other words, sufficient distance between the NDP and the Liberals for preferring the latter to the former. They may be chasing some of the same votes, but they are not interchangeable – the Liberals remain a welcome antidote to ideological politics.

Whether that merits support for the Liberals over the Conservatives is a very different question, one that these pages will take up later this week.