POLITICS

Conservatives On Defence In Several Urban Man. And Sask. Ridings

10/13/2015 07:38 EDT | Updated 10/13/2016 05:12 EDT

For more than a year, Dan Vandal has been knocking on doors he's knocked on so many times before.

The polls are never far from his mind.

"I keep an eye on them," he concedes between doors.

The former Winnipeg city councillor who used to win handily in the city's predominantly Franco-Manitoban quarter, is now a Liberal candidate trying to wrestle back St. Boniface-St.Vital.

It's a new name for an old riding that stretches across Winnipeg's southeast through old French neighbourhoods out to new suburbs that were barely there last election.

For decades, this was a Liberal stronghold, at least until the Conservatives took hold of it a couple of elections ago.

Now it's more competitive than it's been in years.

"I think it's really neck and neck between the Conservatives and Liberals, they've been the party in power, I don't take them lightly at all," said Vandal.

His Conservative opponent François Catellier feels his campaign is going equally as well.

"Overall I'm very happy the way the campaign is going, he said.

"I'm very humbled by number the number of volunteers stepping up to the plate, the number of people that are committed to a Conservative win."

In the last couple of elections Manitoba and Saskatchewan have been mostly foregone conclusions, almost exclusively Tory blue, with the exception of a few seats. In 2011 the Conservatives won all but four of the 28 seats the provinces have.

While it appears the Conservative's rural vote in both provinces is solid again, in the three largest cities Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Regina, it's shaping up to be a different story with races more competitive than they've been in at least a decade.

Liberals gaining in Winnipeg

In Manitoba, one recent poll had the Liberals and Conservatives tied at 39 per cent in popular support across the province.

Those numbers tilt in favour of the Liberals in Winnipeg, which hold eight of the province's 14 seats. The other six seats are held by the Conservatives.

"I think it's mostly change, I think, it's a lot of little things that add up as opposed to one big thing," said Curtis Brown, vice-president of Probe Research who says Liberal popularity in Winnipeg has nearly doubled since 2011.

"Some of it may be the economy, the Duffy scandal, those things are combining."

An NDP brand damaged by an unpopular provincial government may also be pushing support towards the Liberals.

"Some of the people that supported the NDP in 2011 are now starting to back the Liberals," Brown said.

Liberals have their eyes on at least three seats that were red during the Chrétien years.

There are also three Conservative incumbents who are not running,

While there may be momentum behind the Liberals, Catellier says on the doorstep Conservative support remains strong.

"Our experience has been there is a great focus from people that want to support our group."

In Winnipeg Centre, Liberal Robert-Falcon Ouellette, a Cree university professor, is also mounting a strong challenge to longtime NDP MP Pat Martin, in a riding where the aboriginal vote could be a factor.

The Liberals are also trying to mobilize the aboriginal vote in the North, hoping to upset the NDP's Niki Ashton in the province's northern-most seat of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski.

A bright spot in Winnipeg for the NDP is Elmwood-Transcona. Daniel Blaikie is in a tight race against the Conservatives to reclaim a seat held for years by his father and NDP stalwart Bill Blaikie.

New boundaries, new game for NDP in Sask.

By contrast, in Saskatchewan it's the NDP most likely to make gains in the cities — largely due to a new electoral map.

While often referred to as the historical home of the NDP, Saskatchewan hasn't sent a New Democrat to Ottawa since 2004.

That's despite the NDP often doing well in Regina and Saskatoon. Previously, both cities had been split up into four ridings that stretched far out into the countryside, where the urban NDP vote was surpassed by strong rural Conservative support.

Redrawn ridings have altered that, creating ridings that are now entirely urban. The NDP believes its chances have improved in at least four ridings (Regina-Lewvan, Saskatoon-University, Saskatoon-Grasswood and Saskatoon-West).

"The riding redistribution was a game-changer for all the people of Saskatoon," said Claire Card, a university professor running for the NDP in Saskatoon-University.

She's expecting redistribution to bring out NDP supporters who had previously sat out.

"We know people stayed home because it was impossible to elect a progressive NDP candidate."

Still NDP victories here are far from certain.

Card is facing Conservative incumbent Brad Trost, who got a boost last week with a visit from Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.

"It's something we have to work very hard to win, we aren't taking anything for granted. " said Card.

With the exception of Ralph Goodale in Regina-Wascana, the Liberals are largely running in third place across the province.

As in Manitoba, the only rural riding in Saskatchewan that appears to be a toss-up is in the north, Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River. It's a three-way race this time. In the last Parliament, the Conservatives held it

Overall in the big picture, it amounts to just a handful of competitive seats between two provinces.

In a tight race, a few seats on the Prairies could mean a lot more than they have in elections past.

Still, despite gains the Liberals and NDP might make, expect at least half the seats in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to remain blue, says Brown.

"They are not sweeping the provinces, the Conservatives should still win a lot seats."

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