Reid: Sit up and pay attention

This is an enormous event.

When news broke late Wednesday that the NDP has surged to top spot in Quebec, according to one poll — and drawn even with the Liberals nationwide, according to another — all lingering doubt was erased.

Jack Layton's momentum is real. It is accumulating. And it will be the principal agent that affects the final days of this election.

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Scott Reid is a principal with Feschuk.Reid and has held senior roles in numerous federal and provincial election campaigns. From 2003 to 2006 he served as senior adviser and director of communications in the office of Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.

In a campaign that was expected to drearily reproduce the status quo we might now plausibly expect the most dramatic realignment of the political landscape since 1993. It is a development that finally merits the much-abused label of game changer.

As such, each of the main parties is now faced with a treacherous set of choices and we enter a time when campaign strategists must earn their keep in full. Exact adjustments will be required. Nerves of polished steel will be needed. Precise decisions will have to be taken.

The threat is most immediate for the Bloc Quebecois, which is suddenly confronted by a fickle Quebec public that offered few warning signs of disaffection.

Obviously, the NDP have captured the fancy of francophones with a mix of policies and personality that Gilles Duceppe is now struggling to marginalize. Layton's nationalist appeal to Quebecers, which sometimes borders on something less admirable, is both a strength and, increasingly, a vulnerability for the New Democrats.

For Stephen Harper, the NDP momentum will give previously uninspired voters permission to leave the prime minister's fold. Something has clearly happened in the past few days.

Harper's personal approval rating is bleeding like a Wes Craven film. He must decide who, how and when to play a card. Does he stand and fight for his dozen Quebec seats? Or bail out and focus on the Lower Mainland and greater Toronto area?

Most importantly, is all this talk of coalition the antidote or the item that's turning people off?

Stop Layton

The Liberals may be inclined to see the rose garden amid the rubble. After all, an NDP surge would limit Harper to a weak minority with the Grits remaining the second largest caucus. 

But that is dangerous thinking. The risk for the Liberals is pronounced. What it means is that a lot of voters are walking past Michael Ignatieff on their way from Stephen Harper. Why is that happening and how can it be halted?

Seats in Vancouver and the GTA are under great pressure. Montreal MPs are clearly imperiled. And there is no reason to assume the NDP tide has stopped rising.

This is not a static moment that can be sliced open and autopsied for its potential seat combinations. The Liberals have one clear imperative: Stop Layton. Stop him now. And recover their position.

Finally, the NDP face the greatest challenge of all: To preserve their momentum despite a certain barrage of incoming fire. Unpredicted rises in support have occurred before only to fall to threads like an overcooked roast. Think the ADQ in Quebec. Sharon Carstairs in Manitoba. Gordon Wilson in BC.  And, of course, Ed Broadbent in 1988.

All showed great promise but faded in the stretch. The exhilaration of Layton's campaign will be matched by a dread that it stands one mistake away from blowing an historic opportunity. Shrewd opponents can exploit that insecurity.

What cannot be said of this moment is that it is typical. The NDP have turned this into an historic election. A government will be lost. A sovereignty movement set back. A great institution humbled. Or an unprecedented possibility squandered.

In these few remaining days, great and lasting choices will be taken.


Kheiriddin: More seats or more three-ways for the Tories to win?

To hear Scott Reid tell it, the NDP's growth is The Biggest Event of This Campaign, or perhaps any Canadian campaign, ever.

OK, I'll concede that it is significant, particularly in potentially breaking the Bloc's lock on Quebec. But I will hold the applause until May 2.

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Tasha Kheiriddin is a columnist and member of the editorial board for the National Post newspaper. She is a regular contributor to CBC's Power and Politics and hosts a radio show, Sunday with Tasha Kheiriddin, on CFRB Newstalk 1010 in Toronto.

I am not fully convinced that this surge will sustain itself until voting day, and I am even less convinced that this surge is due to the strength of the NDP, rather than disenchantment with the Liberals and the Bloc.

If you pick apart the NDP platform (which isn't hard to do), it greatly resembles the Liberal platform, with some anti-business rhetoric thrown in.

There's a pledge to help families with "green" renovations. There's assistance for caregivers and a boost to the CPP. There's a cancellation of tax cuts (a reversal, in the NDP's case) but still the message is the same: families first, corporations second.

The NDP ratchets up the business-bashing with their promises to cap credit card rates, tighten reviews on foreign investment, hold Canadian companes doing business overseas to Canadian environmental standards and discourage the export of unrefined petrochemical products.

Are these policies driving their rising poll numbers? While they may have some traction with left-wing Bloc voters, they are not likely the kind of thing that would make Liberal voters kick up their heels and cross the floor.

The NDP is surging because the Liberal and Bloc campaigns are failing to catch fire with the electorates of English Canada and Quebec, respectively.

Michael Ignatieff's anemic performances in the leaders' debates, coupled with the Liberals' inability to make a single scandal stick to the Tories, sucked the air out of whatever momentum the party had generated in the first two weeks of the campaign.

Meanwhile, Gilles Duceppe may have won the French debate, but it was more by virtue of linguistic advantage than substance, and his subsequent pleas for votes to stop a Harper majority imbue him with an air of desperation.

Still, I will wait and see, because Quebecers are notoriously fickle and self-interested voters. They like to go with a winner.

And while the NDP are on a roll, nobody believes Jack Layton's bluster that he's running for prime minister.

While Gilles Duceppe is not seeking the keys to 24 Sussex either, his party has represented the de facto "home team" for the past seven elections.

Self-interest

If Quebecers are resigned to staying on the bench, they might switch teams. But if they really want to play the game of government, logically, they should switch their votes to the Conservatives.

That could still happen, if Conservative numbers spike in the last week of the campaign.

But self-interest could be subsumed by political leanings. Quebecers tilt left on most issues, including spending, the size of government, social mores, and foreign policy — and thus should be fertile ground for the NDP.

The unresolved question, of course, is the impact that a higher NDP vote would have on seat counts.

In Quebec, the CROP poll would seem to put them within striking distance of half a dozen seats, including several on the island of Montreal.

In English Canada, the NDP surge could stave off Tory gains, pick up a few Liberal seats — or split the centre-left vote and allow Conservatives to come up the middle.

Clearly, the Liberals need to change tactics and focus on the NDP. But with their inability to make a dent in Stephen Harper's Teflon exterior, it's hard to see what the Liberals could throw at the even more popular Jack Layton to knock him off course.

Both the Liberals and the Bloc will likely play the same card: vote for them to stop a Harper majority at all costs. Hmm, the coalition is forming already.