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Byelections test extent of Liberal comeback

Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, right, speaks to supporters with candidate for the Trinity-Spadina riding Adam Vaughan, left, during a campaign stop in Toronto on Thursday, May 22, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette -
Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, right, speaks to supporters with candidate for the Trinity-Spadina riding Adam Vaughan, left, during a campaign stop in Toronto on Thursday, May 22, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
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By Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Four federal byelections on Monday will provide a test of just how far back from the wilderness the Liberals have come under the leadership of Justin Trudeau.

While they're not necessarily harbingers of what's to come in next year's general election, the two Toronto and two Alberta ridings up for grabs may go some ways toward answering some questions about the current political landscape.

Which among the NDP and Liberal parties is best positioned to challenge the Harper government in 2015? How well or not have Conservative attacks on Trudeau worked so far? And as unlikely as it seems, are there signs of life for the Liberals in wild rose country, a Grit wasteland since Trudeau's late father imposed the reviled national energy program more than three decades ago.

The most crucial test Monday will likely be in Trinity-Spadina, where the Liberals are going all-out to steal a seat held by the NDP since 2006 by Olivia Chow, the widow of beloved former party leader Jack Layton. Chow resigned to run for mayor of Toronto.

An upset in that downtown Toronto riding would constitute a huge boost for Liberals and a big blow for New Democrats in the battle for position as the alternative in voters' minds to the Harper Conservatives.

Liberals would not only have the satisfaction of besting the party that vaulted past them in 2011, reducing the so-called natural governing party to a humiliating third-party rump, they'd also be grabbing a seat which has always tended to be something of a bellweather. When the Liberals have won Trinity-Spadina in the past, they've also won power nationally; when the NDP won the riding, the Conservatives won the country.

Initially, it appeared unlikely the Liberals could mount a strong challenge in the riding.

NDP candidate Joe Cressy — a tireless, young social activist with close ties to the Chow and Layton families — got a head start on campaigning while Liberals indulged in a messy internal feud over Trudeau's decision to bar Christine Innes, who had lost twice in the past to Chow, from seeking the nomination.

But the party's prospects appeared to change after popular city councillor Adam Vaughan announced his intention to run for the Liberals.

"Jack and Olivia are still respected and were friends to many. But I've lived and worked in every corner of the ward and the riding. I've been there for 45 years," says Vaughan, who casts himself as a post-partisan politician.

"People are exhausted by (partisanship and political games)," he maintains. "What they want is real government that's doing real work and they're looking for people with a track record of accomplishment."

Cressy, who's been campaigning every day with Mike Layton, a city councillor and the late NDP leader's son, doesn't dispute Vaughan's personal popularity. But he says people wonder why Vaughan is running for a party that doesn't share his progressive views on issues like pipelines.

"The legacy of Jack Layton and Olivia Chow in downtown Toronto is one that they want to continue," Cressy says.

Given the high stakes, it's little wonder both Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair have been in the riding multiple times _ both were in Toronto again this weekend.

"I'm feeling tremendous momentum as the campaign has moved along. I've never seen anyone work harder than Joe Cressey has, we're confident that there's a lot of support there to be had and it's a question of getting the vote out tomorrow," Mulcair said Sunday.

In the other Toronto riding, Scarborough-Agincourt, the Liberals are fighting to hang onto a seat that's been the personal fiefdom of bare-knuckle political brawler Jim Karygiannis for 25 years.

The departure of the mercurial Karygiannis has given the Tories an opportunity to paint yet another suburban Toronto riding blue, appealing to the conservative, family values of ethnic communities. They've papered the riding with flyers blasting Trudeau's support for legalization of marijuana, featuring an unflattering photo of the Liberal leader looking like a drug dealer beside a young child smoking a joint.

Nevertheless, Liberals maintain Trudeau's marijuana policy is a net winner in the riding and they're cautiously optimistic Grit contender Arnold Chan can best Conservative Trevor Ellis, an elementary school teacher.

The Conservatives should hang on to the two Alberta seats — particularly Macleod in the south, where retired Tory Ted Menzies won with 77.5 per cent of the vote in 2011.

But further north, the Liberals have poured resources into Fort McMurray, the heart of Alberta's oil sands industry where the party ran third with a meagre 10 per cent of the vote in 2011.

Trudeau has been in the riding three times to campaign with Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha, who maintains the Harper government takes Fort McMurray for granted and who promises to be "the squeaky wheel" that goads the government into treating the area "like real communities, not just work camps."

Last week, Trudeau was in Fort McMurray describing the Conservative government's cap on temporary foreign workers as "one of the most anti-Alberta federal policies we've seen in decades" —one that's more current than the decades-old grievance over his father's NEP, he might have added.

Most observers say it would take a miracle for the Liberals to actually win the riding but they're hopeful they can pull off another Brandon-Souris, the Manitoba Tory fortress that nearly fell to the resurgent Grits in a byelection late last year.

"I see these byelections as a step on the long road the Liberal party has to walk from 35 seats to forming government after the next election," Trudeau said in Toronto on Sunday.

The fact that the byelections are being held on the Monday before Canada Day, when many voters may be taking a four-day weekend, is the big wild card.

Voter turnout is always low in byelections and the timing of these four could see turnout plummet to record lows. In a tight contest, that means a tiny number of swing voters could determine the outcome.

For their part, Conservatives are lowering expectations.

"We have four strong candidates running good campaigns but, at the end of the day, byelections are very difficult for governing parties and we're being realistic about that," says Conservative party spokesman Cory Hann.

In fact, the Conservatives have fared well in byelections under Harper, holding five ridings, gaining five and losing only one seat.

— With files from Will Campbell

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