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Challenge for the NDP: Getting its sudden new supporters to actually vote

NDP Leader Jack Layton listens to a question during a campaign stop in Winnipeg on April 27, 2011.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

His opponents are attacking, but Jack Layton is campaigning like the frontrunner now. The NDP Leader has already switched from trying to win over voters to a push to get supporters to the polls.

But Mr. Layton's party now faces another challenge: Inflated by a gust of support that took even them by surprise, the New Democrats are scrambling to identify ridings they hadn't expect to win but now have a shot at so they can divert stretched organizational resources there.

The NDP tracks ridings with local polls, but can follow only 50 or 60 at a time, not all 308. Public polls show the party making gains in many regions and far ahead in Quebec, but just two weeks ago, the party was tracking only a half-dozen Quebec ridings - and is now scrambling to determine which ridings are close races that now need extra attention. The party cannot be certain if it can win 14 seats or 50, and that makes it hard to dispatch volunteers. It doesn't even have campaign offices in many ridings.

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That Mr. Layton, smiling and sticking doggedly to his message, is the first of the federal leaders to enter the end game is a clear sign that both he and his opponents see him as having momentum that matters.

Speaking to supporters packed into a Yellowknife campaign office on Wednesday, Mr. Layton's campaign-long call for "change" had become a get-out-the-vote challenge: "Now, some people are going to tell you that you can't make change, you have to go for the same old choices of the past. What do you think of that?"

In the last days of election campaigns, parties always turn from messages aimed at converting voters - promoting policy pledges and attacking their opponents - to those aimed at motivating the converted to vote.

Mr. Layton's stop in Yellowknife on Thursday morning was his last defensive detour - he had yet to visit the Western Arctic riding held by New Democrat Dennis Bevington, who is threatened by the Tories' more definitive stand against the long-gun registry.

The other party leaders have been diverted to increasingly sharp attacks on Mr. Layton. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is now acknowledging him as his main opponent, saying the NDP's jump to second place "clarifies the stark choice for voters." Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff spent one of his few remaining days touring Quebec, hoping the NDP surge would somehow work to his advantage by splitting the vote in some ridings. He told reporters in Quebec City that it was time to put NDP policies "under a microscope."

But they are running out of time for those battles. On Friday, the royal wedding in London will monopolize the broadcast airwaves in Canada, turning the campaign focus to a weekend, riding-by-riding ground war to motivate supporters to vote.

Targeting close ridings for that last-weekend push is usually key to campaign success - for tour stops, but more importantly, to send in party workers for get-out-the-vote efforts.

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The thinking in NDP circles is that, provided the party's lead over the Bloc in Quebec remains as wide as polls suggest, the party can still win seats in ridings where it is outmatched in terms of on-the-ground organization.

Mr. Layton remains largely focused on gains: Saskatoon on Thursday afternoon, Kamloops, Comox, and Vancouver on Friday in British Columbia. On the weekend, he will make one last rush through ridings the party believes it can win before heading to Toronto for election day. As the party's fortunes inch up in Ontario, more seats are coming into play in Toronto's urban core and in some southwestern Ontario ridings between Hamilton and Windsor.

The NDP ad strategy has already adjusted, leaving behind pitches on policies and negative whacks against opponents for spots showcasing Mr. Layton as prime minister - "spine-tingler" spots, one campaign strategist called them, designed to motivate supporters.

And the money is rolling in, too. New figures show the party has raked in more than $2.5-million in donations since the writ was dropped March 26, topping the $2.1-million raised during the 2008 campaign. Donations are also up in Ontario and in Alberta.

The party raised $100,000 in online donations on just one day, Tuesday, this week.



With a report from Bill Curry

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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