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Manitoba Liberal defections spell doom for Gerrard, signal two-way race

Manitoba's New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives focused on key swing constituencies Friday while two members of the tiny Liberal party jumped ship.

It was the strongest signal yet that the fight to win Tuesday's election has come down to a tight, two-way shootout.

The NDP, aiming for a fourth straight majority government, acquired some new ammunition – letters of support signed by former Liberal members of Parliament Anita Neville and John Harvard. Mr. Harvard also recently served as Manitoba's lieutenant-governor.

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The letters encourage Liberals in two suburban Winnipeg ridings to vote for incumbent New Democrats Sharon Blady and Theresa Oswald, who are facing strong Tory challengers.

"While we are strong supporters of the federal Liberal party, in this close race ... we hope that you will make a strategic choice," reads the letter sent to Liberals in Kirkfield Park.

The missive capped a week of bad news for the Liberals, who may be imploding if opinion polls and analysts are correct. Leader Jon Gerrard said he was disappointed by the letters, but supported the right of people to take sides.

One of the party's candidates, Harry Wolbert, has already predicted the party could be wiped off the map. And political analysts such as Paul Thomas, a professor at the University of Manitoba, have said the Liberals are in danger of being shut out for the first time in 30 years.

An opinion poll released Friday added to that impression. The Probe Research poll, conducted for the Winnipeg Free Press, suggested the Liberals had the support of just seven per cent of voters – down from the 12 per cent that garnered them two seats in the 2007 election.

The poll also suggested the NDP had a slight edge over the Progressive Conservatives. It pegged NDP support at 46 per cent of decided voters and Tory support at 43 per cent. But in Winnipeg, home to more than half of the legislature's seat, the poll gave the NDP a big lead — 53 per cent to 35.

"The numbers are pretty good for the NDP ... but the PCs are up as well. In Winnipeg, they've grown from 29 per cent [in the 2007 election] to 35 per cent," said Christopher Adams, vice-president of Probe Research.

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Mr. Selinger said he sees the battle as close.

"I try not to pay much attention to polls, quite honestly, because elections are about who actually goes out and votes," he said. "A poll doesn't mean anything if the people don't go out and vote."

Probe Research surveyed 1,000 Manitobans by telephone between Sept. 21 and 28. The provincewide results are considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The Winnipeg results have a margin of error of four per cent.

The Tory and New Democrat leaders have spent much of their time in the suburban Winnipeg seats that could determine the election's outcome. Under former premier Gary Doer, the NDP won longtime Tory strongholds in south and west Winnipeg, which led the party to capture 36 of 57 legislature seats in 2007.

This time around, the Tories have targeted five of those suburban seats, as well as five NDP seats in rural areas. Mr. Selinger has played defence, making most of his campaign appearances in the same areas.

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