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Layton allows himself a hint of swagger as campaign ends

NDP Leader Jack Layton hugs his wife Olivia Chow on the steps of his campaign bus as he addresses supporters in Toronto on Sunday, May 1, 2011.

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

Having moved his party from also-ran to major player in the space of five weeks, Jack Layton bopped through whistle-stops Sunday seeking to turn frustrations with Ottawa politics into a deal-closing motivator to convince voters to cast ballots for his NDP.

There was a hint of swagger in the final day of Mr. Layton's rush through ridings held by other parties, to rallies of excited supporters who crowded him at a Montreal market and lined a block of Kingston's main drag to see him. The NDP leader promised he's heading back to Ottawa with a "much, much larger team of New Democrats" in the Commons.

But it was the arrogance of opponents he targeted in his closing pitch: that voters long told they could only choose between once-bigger parties now get to give them their comeuppance.

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"You've been told for years that you only have the two old choices, that you can't change what's going on in Ottawa even though it's broken, and you have to just go back and forth between the two old parties," he told supporters from the curbside in Kingston.

"Well, I think Canadians are saying to themselves, 'We'll make up our own mind, thank you very much. And we will make our own choice for change."

It's hardly a new message for Mr. Layton, who has for 38 days repeated the word "change" like a drumbeat, asserting "Ottawa is broken," on every occasion he opens his mouth, and appealing for a new choice.

His platform pledges - to improve income supports for poor seniors, recruit more family doctors, cut oil-industry subsidies, and bring troops home from Afghanistan - are essentially a structure on which he hangs a single-note main message for change.

What's different now is that having tapped into a vein of desire for change to fuel a stunning climb for his party, he's able to use his opponents' past assertions that the NDP never has a hope of governing against them.

It was Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff who seemed to beat expectations in he first days of the campaign, when a status quo Parliament seemed the likeliest outcome. It was little noticed that before the campaign, the NDP was doing better than the Liberals in Quebec, where voters rated Mr. Layton highly.

When Quebeckers felt fatigue with a Bloc Québécois that dominated the province for 18 years but lacked a lightning-rod issue, Mr. Layton's strong performance in the French-language debates made him the beneficiary - and the fact his party became a viable option made it a spiralling phenomenon. And that in turn made voters elsewhere give the NDP a second look, and a second chance to tap their frustrations.

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His last campaign day pulled out surprising and enthusiastic crowds in Montreal and Toronto - with many showing up echoing Mr. Layton's campaign theme: Montrealer Sébastien Parent said he never voted NDP before as he saw it as unable to affect the outcome, but cast his ballot for the NDP in advance polls.

In Kingston, 64-year-old Gail Blondin said she spoiled her ballot in 2008, but this year, became a campaign volunteer for the first time in her life - for NDP candidate Daniel Beals. She insists she's sworn off the Liberals and Tories for life. "They've failed me so many times I'll never vote for anybody but the NDP again," she said.

Mr. Layton's party has shown cracks because of the success: candidates in Quebec ridings they never expected they could win were on vacation, or struggled to speak French. He was knocked off message in the closing weekend, facing questions about a story about an incident in 1996 when he was found in a massage parlour that police believed was used for illicit purposes, though he was never arrested or charged.

The NDP closed off press conferences in the final day of the campaign - wanting nothing to get in the way of the message that the party had the momentum. Mr. Layton's smiling rush through rallies, closing with a boisterous crowd of about 600 in Scarborough, was the final note.

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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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