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Sheila Copps swoops in to try to save struggling Manitoba Liberals

Sheila Copps speaks as a private citizen at the trbute evening in her honour held at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, in this 2006 file photo.

The Globe and Mail / Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail / Glenn Lowson

Former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps lent a hand to the Manitoba Liberals on Thursday to try to prevent another demoralizing downfall such as the party suffered in last spring's federal vote.

"In this race, we don't want to see people polarizing like they did in the federal election. We need people to come to the centre where the Liberal values are," said Ms. Copps, who was a cabinet minister for 10 years and is running to be the party's next president.

The federal Liberals were left with less than three dozen seats in May when much of their support shifted to the New Democrats or Conservatives.

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Ms. Copps attended what was originally billed as a youth rally inside a conference room at the University of Manitoba. But the event was moved outdoors and fewer than a dozen Liberal candidates and supporters were on hand. They shook hands with students walking by and pitched the party's platform.

The sparse attendance was the latest indication that the Liberals are struggling for survival in Tuesday's provincial election.

Opinion polls suggest they have about 10 per cent of the vote – down from the 12 per cent that helped them garner two of the legislature's 57 seats in 2007. One of those became vacant when Kevin Lamoureux resigned to run a successful federal campaign and political analysts says leader Jon Gerrard is in a tough battle to hang on to his own.

A Liberal candidate has even mused publicly about the possibility of a collapse. Harry Wolbert, who is running in the St. Vital constituency in south Winnipeg, suggested this week that the party is in danger of being wiped off the political map.

But Ms. Copps sounded optimistic.

"I'm very hopeful that (Mr. Lamoureux's) provincial seat will stay in the Liberal fold, and I think we've got some great young candidates. All we can do is keep working."

Mr. Gerrard rejected any talk of defeat.

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"We are full steam ahead. I believe we've got some momentum. I believe we're going to elect some Liberals," he said.

Mr. Gerrard has touted the possibility that a small Liberal caucus could hold the balance of power if the NDP or Progressive Conservatives form a minority government.

The Liberals have traditionally secured only a few seats in the Manitoba legislature, except for a two-year period under Sharon Carstairs in the 1980s when they were the official Opposition.

The party is slated to get more federal help Sunday. Interim party leader Bob Rae is scheduled to attend a rally with provincial candidates.

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