WINNIPEG, Manitoba/CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The Canadian Prairies, long a Conservative Party stronghold that has helped the party rule the country for nearly a decade, no longer looks to be an impenetrable fortress heading into an Oct. 19 election that could be decided by a few seats.
New electoral district boundaries, a left-wing breakthrough in Alberta, and retirements of popular local politicians leave the Conservatives vulnerable in some areas in a tight three-way national race against the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) and Liberal Party.
The party also faces growing voter discontent after nine years in power, exacerbated by job cuts in Alberta's oil industry and big provincial government revenue shortfalls in that province and Saskatchewan triggered by the global oil rout.
"It is a big challenge," said retiring Conservative legislator Joy Smith. "We call it the 10-year cycle. After 10 years people start saying, 'we need to look at things.'"
Not since 1980 has a Canadian prime minister won four terms, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper is attempting.
Robert Sopuck, a Conservative lawmaker who won his seat from Manitoba with a big margin in 2011 and is running for re-election, expects a tight race in his province.
"Nobody said this was going to be easy."
ThreeHundredEight.com polls analyst Eric Grenier projects that with current levels of support, the Conservatives would win 43 out of 62 Prairie districts, called ridings, with the NDP getting 12 and the Liberals winning seven. Nationally, 338 electoral single-seat districts are up for grabs.
In 2011, the Conservatives won 51 out of 56 then available seats in the region that includes the oil-rich and grain-growing provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Conservative insiders say the party is resigned to losing about four more seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but hopes to offset the losses by winning new Alberta districts. Much depends on the last weeks of campaigning, Smith said, adding that the "real campaign" will kick off next week, when many Canadians return from vacation.
A few Prairie districts could be critical for the election's outcome and may decide whether any party can win enough seats to govern alone, said Curtis Brown, vice-president of polling firm Probe Research.
Nationally, a recent poll by Ipsos put the left-leaning NDP first with 33 percent support, ahead of the Liberals with 30 percent and the ruling Conservatives with 29 percent.
With the race so close, the Prairies shape up as one of the key battlegrounds as rivals challenge the Conservatives, who in 2011 dominated the Prairies, British Columbia and vote-rich Ontario. Liberal organizers say leader Justin Trudeau will devote greater attention to the Prairies while one NDP official said the party was aiming to snatch up to 11 seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The seeds of Conservative self-doubt were sown in May when the New Democrats swept Alberta's provincial election, ending the Conservatives' 44-year reign. Canadians do not always vote for the same parties nationally and at the provincial level, and the NDP benefited from a split in right-wing vote between the Conservatives and a party that only operates on a provincial level.
Still, the NDP and the Liberals look to gain ground.
In Saskatchewan, changes to voting districts that created some urban-only ridings seem to favor the NDP.
New Democrats typically do well in the province's two largest cities, Regina and Saskatoon, but came away empty-handed in 2011 as rural Conservative supporters outnumbered urban votes in election districts.
This time, redrawn districts should give the party at least two seats, said NDP organizer John Tzupa.
The Liberals, who won one Saskatchewan seat in 2011, expect more wins there, and may be poised for gains in Manitoba's capital Winnipeg.
“There is no question that Mr. Trudeau is going to make the Prairies and the West a larger chunk of the national campaign," said Ralph Goodale, a Liberal running for re-election in Regina.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Tomasz Janowski