09/17/2011 10:00 EDT | Updated 11/17/2011 05:12 EST

Defence on election trail: Manitoba NDP premier spends most time in party seats

WINNIPEG - If his itinerary is any indication, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger is playing defence in his campaign for re-election.

Selinger has scheduled most of his news conferences and other high-profile events in constituencies that his New Democrats already hold.

He has made repeated trips to seats in south Winnipeg where some of his senior members are perceived to be in tight races: Health Minister Theresa Oswald, Advanced Education Minister Erin Selby and Water Stewardship Minister Christine Melnick.

Even his trips outside Winnipeg have been almost exclusively to NDP seats: Gimli, Dauphin and La Verendrye — home to three cabinet ministers — and Brandon East and Interlake, held by backbenchers.

One analyst says Selinger's choice of campaign stops says a lot.

"I think the premier says, 'We're not so much in the campaign...about expanding our majority. It's about protecting the majority we have and avoiding slipping too much in terms of the number of seats,'" says Paul Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Manitoba.

Thomas and other analysts, as well as opinion polls, suggest the Oct. 4 election will be the closest contest in more than a decade.

The NDP is seeking a fourth mandate, but its first under Selinger. The last three victories were guided by the immensely popular Gary Doer, who resigned in 2009 to become Canada's ambassador to the United States.

The party's popularity dipped in opinion polls after Selinger took over. But the party's numbers have since rebounded and suggest the NDP had a slight advantage before the campaign started.

The Progressive Conservatives have focused much of their efforts on south Winnipeg — a territory that used to be theirs until the NDP swept to power in 1999. Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen has been spending even more time in the area than Selinger.

The premier rejects the idea he is reinforcing NDP seats. He points out that he has made two trips to River East, a Winnipeg seat the Tories won by a slim margin in 2007, and has visited Tory-held Brandon West as well.

"We're covering all the parts of Manitoba. We're going everywhere in Manitoba.

"You go where there are good activities to be announced and things to be done."

That Selinger is focusing on guarding what he has may come as no surprise. He would be hard-pressed to expand what has been one of the biggest majorities in modern Manitoba history.

The NDP won 36 of 57 legislature seats in 2007, which tied a record set by the Tories in the 1960s. It was considered something of a landslide in a province with a history of minority government and slim majorities.

The ball is in McFadyen's court. He led the Tories to 19 seats in the last vote and would have to add at least 10 to secure a majority government. McFadyen has been spending a lot of time in five seats in south Winnipeg and, like Selinger, has visited Gimli, Dauphin and Brandon.

Thomas feels the itineraries are a sign that the election will come down to a few seats. Much of the rural south is solid Conservative territory. The province's north and Winnipeg's inner core and northern suburbs have been strongly NDP.

"The number of seats that are actively at play in any particular election is small," Thomas said.

"There may be a dozen seats at most, and a few thousand votes here and there can decide who will occupy the seats of government."

Selinger plans to visit the province's north next week — a solid NDP region.