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Adrenaline fuelling Layton's high-stakes sprint

NDP Leader Jack Layton raises his cane to the crowd at a campaign rally in Burnaby, B.C. on Saturday, April 30, 2011.

Andrew Vaughan/ The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan/ The Canadian Press

After pounding on the door for three elections, the NDP feels as though it may be finally swinging wide open. NDP Leader Jack Layton explains his party's sudden gust of support, in part, by Stephen Harper's failure to live up to his populist promise of reform and change.

In the final 48 hours of the election campaign, Mr. Layton is facing a high-stakes sprint he's never experienced before. It appears likely to turn the NDP into a major coast-to-coast force in Canadian politics. But it could all still slip away if the party's new supporters don't head to the polls to deliver a breakthrough on the scale now expected.

Mr. Layton's smiling, positive political tone is cited by his party strategists as one reason for their apparent surge; a moderate, meat-and-potatoes platform about everyday concerns like finding family doctors or improving pensions is another.

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But Mr. Layton offered a similar message in the 2008 campaign, when he made the same, perennial NDP argument that voters didn't have to pick between Tories and Liberals - and back then, it didn't resonate with voters in the same way. Saturday, his last British Columbia campaign rally, in Burnaby, brought about 2,000 people, forcing police to close off traffic at the nearest corner.

At the rally, Mr. Layton suggested that his party has been able to tap into a disappointment with Stephen Harper's promises of change that didn't materialize.

"I think people were prepared to give Stephen Harper a chance. And they found that things didn't really change in Ottawa. There were lots of promises made that things were going to be done differently. They went from scandals of the Liberals to scandals of the Conservatives," Mr. Layton told reporters.

"The people of British Columbia were shocked to get the HST imposed when they'd been promised things would be more affordable. They're told they're out of the recession but then there's these thousands of people that haven't got jobs. And so a lot of people are saying, 'We need to move in a new direction.' And I think they've become familiar with who we are."

He argued that the disenchantment with Mr. Harper has helped make voters willing to try something different.

"Particularly Mr. Harper. I mean something clearly changed from the time when many British Columbians and others voted for him, when he was going to bring a more populist thrust, a more accountable thrust, a more open sense of government. And we've seen the opposite. He's appointed his cronies from the Senate. There's sole-sourced contracts. There's all of the things that we used to see from the Liberals."

Mr. Layton has certainly benefited from the desire to try something new that has afflicted his opponents, notably in Quebec, where the Bloc Québécois, who have dominated the province since 1993, have been unable to find a rallying cry - like the sponsorship scandal in 2004 and 2006 or Mr. Harper's culture-funding cuts in 2008 - to fuell support.

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His opponents, Mr. Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, have turned their guns toward him to try to stall that surge - Mr. Harper appealed to Liberal supporters Saturday to vote for his party to stop the NDP from taking power. But the NDP argues that the contrast with Mr. Layton's relentlessly upbeat tone actually motivates some to back the NDP Leader, especially young people.

"I think unity and hope are concepts that are particularly important to young people," said Don Davies, the party's incumbent candidate in Vancouver-Kingsway. "They're idealistic. Their whole lives are in front of them. They want to build something positive."

Now the NDP is in a final sprint to get those new supporters - young people and Quebeckers, notably - to vote. Otherwise, the surge in poll surveys could turn to mirage when the ballots are counted.

Mr. Layton's Burnaby rally was his last event in the West, and he now heads to Montreal to start a one-day whistle-stop tour through ridings the party hopes to gain along the St. Lawrence valley, culminating in a rally in Toronto's Scarborough district.

His party, which lacks the deeper organizing machines of the other three parties, is now scrambling to try to organize a get-out-the-vote campaign in the right places. Mr. Layton said the dizzying prospect that the party could either realize a massive breakthrough, or see it slip through their fingers in the last days, doesn't make him nervous.

"I wouldn't say nervous. I would say very focused," he said. "The adrenaline is flowing, that's for sure. And I think that's happening with all of our candidates and workers, because I think there's a sense that we're on the threshold of something very exciting."

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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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