NORTH BAY, Ont. — On the party war room maps, the northeastern Ontario riding of Nipissing-Timiskaming probably gets an extra special pushpin circled in colour.
It's the kind of battleground that on election night could paint an accurate picture about the staying power of the Conservatives, the life left in the Liberals, the depth of any NDP surge and whether strategic voting is really a thing.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper will visit the riding on Wednesday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair stopped in just a few days before the election was called and Justin Trudeau is said to be planning a visit to the shores of Lake Nipissing soon.
For the parties, the pull isn't the pleasant North Bay waterfront that Samuel de Champlain visited 400 years ago, but the mathematics from the last election.
Conservative Jay Aspin beat incumbent Liberal Anthony Rota by only 18 votes in 2011, the smallest margin in the country. Rota is running a re-match.
The NDP, meanwhile, posted some of their strongest numbers ever in the riding in 2011, hitting 21 per cent in an area that has always gone either blue or red. When the New Democrats talk about this election, they throw Nipissing-Temiskaming onto their list of "maybes."
All this means that vote splits and the potential for strategic voting are top of mind for the candidates.
"At the door, we're hearing more and more that people who once voted Liberal are now considering the NDP for the first time and they're seeing Tom Mulcair as the one who's going to defeat Stephen Harper," said first-time NDP candidate Kathleen Jodouin, a co-ordinator with the local Women and HIV/AIDS Initiative.
"This riding has traditionally had vote-splitting and people are no longer satisfied with how that's turned out, so they're looking at what we have to offer."
Where Aspin might have been a nice surprise win for the Conservatives the last time around, they aren't taking any chances now.
Their candidate, who would not answer requests for an interview, made 12 federal funding announcements in the space of 22 days in July and hosted three cabinet ministers.
A decline in the resource sector has hurt the local economy, which includes firms that manufacture products for the mining industry. Harper is scheduled to hold his daily event at one of those companies.
Between Oct. 2012 and June 2015, the number of people on welfare in the District of Nipissing increased by 24 per cent. A front-page story in the North Bay Nugget last month reported an increased demand for free meals in the community.
John Lechlitner, a local entrepreneur in touch with hundreds of residents every week with his bar and catering business, said the main issue he's hearing about is jobs.
"There's a lot of underemployed people in the city right now, so the question becomes who can deliver jobs?" said Lechlitner, who is not a member of any party.
"I'm hearing people say, well Jay did this, Jay did that for the riding. He's worked hard with the college and the university and the resources sector to open whatever doors."
But the electoral landscape has literally changed for Aspin.
The riding's boundaries were redrawn in a way that theoretically favours the Liberals or the NDP by including more of the big Nipissing 10 Reserve to the north and lopping off two "conservative" townships.
Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod makes no secret of the fact his community will be thinking strategically about where their votes should go — to the NDP or the Liberals.
"We're going to have to wait and see how this election goes, but I think it's still way too early to tell right now strategically where our vote will count more, without having the risk of splitting votes," McLeod said.
It's that kind of strategic voting talk that has Rota talking to people about the importance of their choices at the ballot box.
Rota says he's hearing people talk about the loss of full-time, quality jobs, but also about health care and the environment. TransCanada's Energy East pipeline project would have crude oil travelling through Trout Lake, the freshwater source for the area.
"The NDP have a presence, it's not a strong one but they do have a presence, and it may be just enough to take enough votes away so the Conservatives get back in," said Rota, a director of government relations and professor at Nipissing University.
"That's something that people should consider, and I know I've heard it at the door, even from people who normally vote NDP."
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