BURLINGTON, Ont. — Would the candidate please speak up, croaks a request from the back row of a nursing home common room.
Mike Wallace, the incumbent in the southern Ontario riding of Burlington, obliges with his best theatre voice — he's making his campaign pitch to about 15 very elderly voters, most of them in wheelchairs.
It's a small audience, but every set of ears counts in an election that is so much more uncertain this time, so much harder to get a read on — even for a strong incumbent like Wallace.
Wallace won this riding of Burlington with 54 per cent of the vote in 2011 — there was no story here of Liberal-NDP vote splitting sending the Conservative up over the top.
A few kilometres away, outside the Fortino's grocery store, brand-new mother Naomi expresses the uncertainty that's coursing through some of the most theoretically blue ridings.
"Probably leaning towards Mike Wallace, but not 100 per cent sure," said Naomi, who asked that her last name be withheld.
"Leadership is very important to me. I think that Stephen Harper has done a reasonable job navigating us through the financial crisis ... but I also think that Stephen Harper has been in power long enough and that it's time for a change."
Wallace says voters in Burlington, about a fifth of whom are seniors, are well informed and engaged. He says they like to hash out the differences between the Conservative and Liberal positions on deficits and spending.
The Conservatives have promised a new advanced manufacturing hub in the area that would help businesses develop cutting edge technologies.
But Wallace recognizes that there's also an analysis underway of whether the government should be kept in power after a decade.
"Even though I won by 54 per cent of the vote, this riding was Liberal at one point ... it can move back and forth, and so we're not taking anything for granted," Wallace said in an interview at his campaign office.
"We're working from early morning to nine, 10 (p.m.)."
Provincially, the Liberals orchestrated an upset in Burlington last year. Eleanor McMahon won the riding for the party for the first time in 71 years.
Federally, Liberal Paddy Torsney held the riding during the Chretien-Martin years, and Tory Bill Kempling from 1979 to 1993.
"Burlington's had a history of voting for strong candidates from any of the parties," says Mayor Rick Goldring.
Liberal hopeful Karina Gould argues that people in the riding are progressive, and moderate, and no longer see themselves in Stephen Harper's Conservative party.
"What I hear often is, 'Mike's a nice guy, but he's running for Stephen Harper, so therefore he shares those values, and those aren't the values I share,'" said Gould, an Oxford grad who worked most recently as a trade commissioner in Canada for the Mexican government.
"The flipside of what I'm getting at the door ... is, 'At first I was voting against Stephen Harper, now I'm voting for you."'
Gould dismisses the NDP as a factor in his election, but don't tell that to candidate David Laird.
Laird, who has run for the New Democrats four times before, said the demographics are changing, bringing more ethnic diversity and younger families. That bodes well for the NDP, he argues.
Laird's own views sometimes differ from that of official party policy — including the notion that the Bank of Canada should carry some of the national debts, rather than international banks.
"We represent the interests of working people, we always have since the inception of our party, and the two main political parties represent the interests of top level financiers, and particularly international investors at the expense of Canadians," said Laird, a child protective services worker.
At Coffee Culture, a cafe in downtown Burlington, there's a mix of perspectives and no clearer answer as to how the election will shake down.
One man says he wants the Conservatives to find a "Red Tory" to lead them — he's voting Liberal this time.
Another complains that the Liberals keep choosing leaders from Quebec.
Lesley Miceli says she's voting NDP, but she doesn't think the riding will go that way.
"I think that it's going to be a Conservative victory, definitely here."
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