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NDP Leader Jack Layton at a campaign stop in Toronto on April 21, 2011.

Mike Cassese/Reuters/Mike Cassese/Reuters

The Conservatives are inching toward a majority as the federal campaign heads into its final week - with a surge in NDP support that began in Quebec now rippling across the country.

The New Democrats have moved into second place nationally, ahead of the Liberals, according to polls released Thursday, though still well back of the leading Conservatives. With just over a week to go in the campaign, a majority government seems to be within Stephen Harper's reach, and the NDP could be looking at substantial seat gains at the expense of the Bloc Québécois, the Liberals and even some Tories.

NDP Leader Jack Layton's strong debate performances, particularly in the French-language debate, have turned the left-leaning party into a contender nationally. An Ipsos-Reid poll released late Thursday placed the NDP in second place - the first time in 19 years that the party has risen so high, the pollster noted.

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Regionally, the NDP gains are even more impressive. In Quebec, the New Democrats have driven Bloc support down substantially, with the NDP continuing to gather momentum, said Nik Nanos, president and CEO of Nanos Research. "In Quebec, it's a horse race between the Bloc and the NDP." But the NDP still faces the task of converting that "political goodwill" into seats, he said.

The NDP is seeing its numbers shoot upward as well in British Columbia, Ontario and the Atlantic provinces. New Democrats are even talking publicly about recapturing ridings in the B.C. Interior that they lost to the Reform Party 18 years ago.

The question facing Mr. Layton is whether he can maintain his momentum until the May 2 vote. The NDP has seen many a mid-campaign spike ebb by election day, as votes bleed to other parties or supporters simply stay home. Mr. Nanos said the party could face a recoil effect in this campaign, if voters shy away from the consequences of a mass turn to the NDP.

The Liberals have been caught between two forces: Mr. Layton's personal appeal and the Conservative push for a majority government. While the Liberals have focused on the Tories, they may now need to turn their attention, however belatedly, to turning back the NDP. The Liberals have done it before, in 2004, when a push - and a slew of negative ads - beat back the Conservatives in the last four days.

But with a long weekend under way, there may simply not be enough campaigning left to accomplish a similar turnaround in 2011, Mr. Nanos said. "Right now, time is against the Liberals."

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