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NDP draw 1,000 to rally in Duceppe's riding

NDP Leader Jack Layton addresses supporters during a campaign stop in downtown Montreal April 23, 2011.

Christinne Muschi/ Reuters/Christinne Muschi/ Reuters

If NDP Leader Jack Layton is putting a little swagger in his step, he has reason.

More than 1,100 New Democrats crammed into a theatre Saturday for the party's largest-ever campaign rally in Quebec - smack in the middle of Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe's riding and a stone's throw from Mr. Duceppe's campaign office.

Was it a poke?

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Mr. Layton said no, despite the fact that there are plenty of other places to gather in Canada's second-largest city.

"We tried to find a large enough room ... it was difficult," Mr. Layton said in French, not even trying to hide a smile.

"We liked the room and it worked very well."

With polls suggesting the NDP has surged in Quebec, and the other parties targeting the NDP in attack ads and speeches, Mr. Layton is in a position few thought was possible mere weeks ago.

More reporters are turning up at Mr. Layton's events in a province where he has traditionally struggled to get on nightly newscasts. Crowds are bigger and more boisterous - Saturday's rally drew a crowd almost twice the size of the NDP's biggest Quebec rally in the 2008 election.

He used the term "prime minister" to refer to his potential job nine times, even though no opinion poll in the country suggests that is achievable.

Perhaps most noticeably, francophones are no longer a small minority at party events in Quebec.

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The Montreal-born politician has also adopted some of the Québécois parlance. In his speech Saturday, Mr. Layton frequently used the French word "ici" - here - to list Quebec's priorities as if hinting they are different from those in other parts of Canada.

"Here, we give priority to job creation, to the environment, to peace," he said in French.

"Here, we dare to use words like change, like hope, like progress."

Mr. Layton's personal popularity with Quebeckers has skyrocketed, based in part on his folksy charm and his effort to speak French fluently. He has enjoyed a honeymoon with Quebeckers since appearing on the popular television show "Tout le monde en parle" (Everybody's talking about it) earlier in the campaign.

More recently, newspapers splashed his picture on the front page when he poured beer at a bar during a Montreal Canadiens playoff game.

But his policies on Quebec-specific concerns have been vague, and the spotlight that is just starting to shine on him may reveal difficulties in attracting support in Quebec without alienating other provinces.

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He has hinted at favouring more House of Commons seats for Quebec, but stops short of promising to guarantee the province at least 25 per cent of the seats even as its population shrinks relative to the rest of Canada. It's a specific guarantee sought by the Bloc as well as some federalists in Quebec.

When pressed on the issue Saturday, Mr. Layton promised consultations.

"We believe in representation by population ... there's also the principle of the communities of interest that have been established by the Supreme Court, and so while you're working through these issues, you have to come up with these balances and that's why we want those kind of discussions to happen at the House of Commons."

Mr. Layton is also trying to walk a line on the issue of language rights. The NDP adopted in 2006 a position that favours increasing the use of French in federal and federally regulated workplaces in Quebec.

It's a position that has been questioned both by anglophone columnists who say it goes too far, and by the Bloc members who say it does not go far enough.

With eight campaigning days left, Mr. Layton is expected to return to Quebec and try to add to the party's lone seat in the province - Thomas Mulcair's Outremont riding in Montreal.

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