10/05/2011 12:36 EDT | Updated 12/05/2011 05:12 EST

Newfoundland Liberals distant third, Tories leading over NDP in Environics poll

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - A new opinion poll has found that the governing Conservative party in Newfoundland and Labrador held a strong lead over its rivals heading into the final week of the province's election campaign.

The NDP has traditionally been the third party in the province, but it was in second place in the online poll by the Environics Research Group, which was provided exclusively to The Canadian Press.

When asked which party they planned to vote for in Tuesday's election, 38 per cent of respondents backed the Progressive Conservatives, compared to 23 per cent for the NDP and nine per cent for the Liberals. Thirty per cent were undecided.

Derek Leebosh, Environics vice-president of public affairs, said the numbers suggest a political realignment is on its way for Newfoundland and Labrador between the NDP and the Liberals.

"The NDP is going to become the new non-Conservative party. It's a miniature version of what happened at the federal level in May," he said of the NDP's sweep under the late Jack Layton to Official Opposition status in Ottawa.

Other surveys since the campaign began Sept. 19 have suggested the NDP could finish second for the first time in provincial history.

The Tories held 43 seats in the legislature at dissolution, compared to four Liberals and one NDP seat held by the party's leader, Lorraine Michael.

Unlike traditional telephone polling, in which respondents are randomly selected, the Environics survey was conducted online from Sept. 29 to Oct. 4 among 708 respondents, all of whom were chosen from a larger pool of people who were recruited and compensated for participating. Environics then adjusts the sample to reflect a broad spectrum of the population.

The non-random nature of online polling makes it impossible to determine statistically how accurately the results reflect the opinions of the population at large.

Liberal Leader Kevin Aylward questioned the survey's accuracy and said he believes his party is still very much in the running based on what he is hearing in the ridings.

"I think some commentators are being careful now because they're going to be in for a surprise" when the votes are in, he said in an interview.

"We have some excellent, solid candidates in these ridings."

Dale Kirby, an NDP candidate in St. John's North and provincial party president, said the Environics poll echoes results of similar recent surveys.

"We've had other polls that reflect this trend, so it makes sense to me," he said. "We've run a good campaign. We are a professional political party and we're acting like one."

Conservative Leader Kathy Dunderdale agreed that the polls are in the same range.

"I'm happy enough with where we are at this point in time," she said.

The Environics survey also asked respondents about each party leader's performance. Seventy per cent said they approved of Dunderdale's performance, compared to 65 per cent who approved of Michael's and 24 per cent for Aylward.

When asked about the most important election issue, health care ranked first at 31 per cent of respondents, followed by the economy-unemployment at 18 per cent, social programs like child care at 12 per cent, energy and electricity projects at 10 per cent, education at seven per cent, and taxation and debt issues at six per cent each.