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Liberals poised for gains, but not government, in make-or-break battle

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Jan. 31, 2011.


Depending on the outcome, Michael Ignatieff's first kick at the electoral can could be his last. Though the Liberal Party is arguably better equipped and positioned to fight the next election than it was under Stéphane Dion, it will take a significant shift in public opinion to bump the Grits out of the opposition benches and into government.

But while a Liberal minority does not appear in the cards at the moment, there is an opportunity for growth. An analysis of the 308 ridings in Canada indicates that as many as 23 are likely candidates for a takeover by Mr. Ignatieff and his team, increasing their standing to 100 MPs in the House of Commons.

Nineteen of the 77 seats currently occupied by the Liberals, all east of Manitoba, can be considered to be Grit "fortresses." These are held by such party luminaries as Bob Rae, John McCallum, Carolyn Bennett, Denis Coderre, and Marc Garneau.

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A further 47 ridings can be classified as "secure," more than half of them in Ontario. Only five are in the West, and include the ridings of Ralph Goodale and Hedy Fry.

This gives the Liberals a hard floor of 19 seats and a soft floor of 66, leaving 11 of their currently held ridings vulnerable.

The two most vulnerable ridings are in the Montreal region: Brossard-La Prairie, held by Alexandra Mendes, and Papineau, home of Justin Trudeau. The Bloc Québécois has seen its support increase in Quebec while that of the Liberals has sunk, and strong local campaigns will be required to keep these two ridings in the Liberal fold.

Andrew Kania and Ruby Dhalla, two Brampton MPs, will also likely have a tough fight on their hands, while Ujjal Dosanjh in Vancouver South won with the slimmest of margins in 2008.

The decision of two Liberal MPs not to run again in the next election puts Kingston and the Islands (Speaker Peter Milliken) and Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca (Keith Martin) on the bubble, while the rumoured candidature of Bernard Lord, former premier of New Brunswick, means Brian Murphy could face a stiff challenge in Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe.

Elsewhere, the New Democrats can be expected to try to wrest Winnipeg North back from newly minted MP Kevin Lamoureux, while fallout from his long-gun registry vote could hurt Larry Bagnell in Yukon.

One of the more interesting ridings to watch will be Lac-Saint-Louis in western Montreal. Larry Smith, former CFL commissioner and Montreal Alouettes president now sitting in the Senate, will be running for the Conservatives in this primarily anglophone riding. He has a gap of almost 23 points to overcome if he wants to defeat Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia. The success of the new Tory strategy meant to attract English Quebec could rest on Mr. Smith's shoulders.

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Mr. Ignatieff's political fate, however, will be decided in the 23 ridings the Liberals have a good chance of stealing from the Conservatives, New Democrats, and Bloc.

Four of these seats are found in British Columbia. The candidature of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May makes Saanich-Gulf Islands a toss-up, while provincial polling trends put Conservative MP Andrew Saxton's riding of North Vancouver within the Liberal Party's grasp. Four nominees are currently vying for the Liberal nomination there.

The three-way race in Vancouver Kingsway makes the riding one to keep an eye on as well, while NDP MP Bill Siksay's decision not to run again in Burnaby-Douglas gives the Liberals an outside chance of capturing the NDP vote and the seat.

In Atlantic Canada, Conservative-held Egmont and Saint John could fall thanks to the soaring Liberal polling numbers in the region, while a few Bloc seats in Quebec, including Gatineau, could be at play. Martin Cauchon will try to get himself back into Parliament by way of Outremont, a riding for which the NDP will fight tooth-and-nail.

But it is in Ontario where the Liberals' electoral hopes lie, as at least 10 ridings in the province could switch allegiance to their side. There are the two very close races in the Kitchener region, and another four in and around Toronto. This includes Vaughan, where a surprisingly strong Liberal campaign only barely lost out to Conservative challenger Julian Fantino in a recent by-election.

As in Yukon, the long-gun registry vote that took place in September could be a factor in the two Northern Ontario ridings of Sudbury and Thunder Bay-Rainy River. Could John Rafferty's vote for scrapping the registry push some NDP support to the Liberals, and could Glenn Thibeault's vote for keeping the registry prop up the Tories and allow the Liberals to come up the middle?

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If the next campaign goes well for Michael Ignatieff and his party manages to keep all of their ridings and win the targeted 23, that would still leave his party as the Official Opposition. If the party reaches 120 seats, however, a minority government becomes very possible.

There are another 54 ridings in which the Liberals have a long-shot chance of pulling off an upset. Does tanking NDP support in Atlantic Canada put Megan Leslie at risk in Halifax? Could the Liberal by-election victory in Winnipeg North spread to Winnipeg South? And could the Liberals return to ridings they have held in the past like Ottawa-Orléans, Richmond, Miramichi, Kenora, Pontiac, and Glengarry-Prescott-Russell?

In the end, a majority government seems completely out of the question for Michael Ignatieff. Adding up all of the ridings currently held by the Liberals and those in which they are likely to be a factor in the coming election puts them at 154 seats, one short of the Promised Land.

But a gain of 20 or more seats would be a moral victory of sorts for the Liberal Leader, and may not mean the end of his tenure. Both Lester Pearson and Wilfrid Laurier lost elections before becoming prime minister, and if Michael Ignatieff performs well in the next campaign and begins to be seen more widely as a viable alternative to Stephen Harper, he might have a future at 24 Sussex after all.

This is the fourth of a five-part series analyzing the electoral chances of each of the five federal parties. In the last three weeks, we looked at the Greens , the Bloc Québécois , and the New Democrats . Next week, we'll assess the Conservatives.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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