MONTREAL/OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's tight three-way election race may be turning into a two-party contest.
The left-leaning New Democrat Party (NDP), which had surged into top spot after an unexpected May victory against the ruling Conservatives in Alberta, has stumbled in national polls as support in its stronghold of Quebec wanes.
The NDP, down from first to third place in national polls, appears to have been hurt by its backing of Muslim women who want to wear the face-covering veil, or niqab, during citizenship ceremonies, while its plans to fund a universal day-care proposal have been greeted with skepticism.
The NDP, historically Canada's most socially progressive party, had looked federally electable for the first time ever, buoyed by the Alberta win and a shift away from far-left policies that had previously alienated voters.
But it has failed to distinguish itself from fellow center-left party the Liberals as the best alternative to the nine-year-old government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The NDP has been seriously damaged, too, by the fallout from a court ruling this month allowing women to wear the niqab during the oath of citizenship. The party's decision last week to come out in support of the veil has prompted a backlash, especially in predominantly French-speaking Quebec, a fiercely secular and electorally important province where many reject overt displays of religion.
"Right now we are looking at an emerging two-horse race with the New Democrats on the decline," pollster Nik Nanos said. He released a poll on Wednesday that showed the Conservatives and Liberals tied at 32 percent and the NDP trailing at 26 percent, down from a high of 33 percent.
While the party could still bounce back, momentum is going in the wrong direction, and there are just 19 days until the election.
If the NDP decline continues, it potentially means a greater share of the "anyone but Harper vote" for the Liberals. Harper, whose government is appealing the court ruling, also stands to gain among voters opposed to accommodating immigrants' customs, pollsters said.
“While a majority of voters for every party supports the requirement (of showing a woman’s face), this could be just the wedge issue the Tories have been looking for,” pollster Ipsos said in a report on Monday.
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has dismissed questions about his party's slide in the polls, saying the NDP's "support in Quebec is at historic levels."
Quebec is crucial to the NDP's survival. It accounts for 23 percent of parliamentary seats, second only to Ontario. The Conservatives hold just five Quebec seats while the NDP have 54.
NDP campaign spokesman Brad Lavigne said each of the three parties have been at or below the NDP's current levels, and that while NDP support has slipped in Quebec, it is still the favorite choice in the province.
Still, the party cannot afford to lose any ground in Quebec, given its lower standing in other regions of Canada, where the Liberals and Conservatives hold more sway.
"What Mr. Mulcair and the NDP will be doing for the remaining 19 days of this campaign is focusing the attention of those in Quebec that the niqab is not the ballot question. The ballot question is, 'Do you want Stephen Harper to have four more years or do you want to defeat and replace him?'" Lavigne said.
But the niqab controversy has caused divisions in the party. Three NDP candidates broke with Mulcair on Tuesday, saying they opposed the veil.
The controversy may prove to be the NDP's undoing in Quebec, said Andre Drouin, the author of a "code of conduct" adopted by the central Quebec town of Herouxville in 2007 that said immigrants wanting to move there must not stone women to death in public or burn them alive.
"I ardently hope that (Harper) wins with a majority," he said. "It's about Canadian values."
Indeed, the Conservatives have gained in polls in swathes of central and eastern Quebec amid the uproar over the veil issue.
The NDP polled as high as 47 percent in Quebec in early September, a lead that helped to thrust it into first place nationally. An Abacus poll of Quebec voters released on Monday, however, showed its support had plunged to around 30 percent.
The NDP has also failed to gain traction with one of its main campaign pledges, universal daycare. The plan has been met with both ambivalence and skepticism it can be done.
"Older folks who don't need it (childcare), and didn't have it when they were raising their families, can get shirty about having to pay for other people's kids," Ipsos pollster Darrell Bricker said.
The NDP wants to give C$15 ($11.25) a day childcare to every child who needs it. But with Canadian history littered with calls for better daycare and failed attempts to create it, even voters who like the idea aren't convinced it will work.
"I suspect no one believes it can actually be done," said Niesa Silzer, an undecided voter in Calgary and mother of 11-month-old twin girls who says she likes the plan. "So it just sounds like another election promise that will be broken."
The NDP's opponents say the plan would take eight years to implement and have to be funded by tax increases or deficits, but the NDP argues the universal daycare program in Quebec has added women to the workforce and childcare jobs to the economy, boosting government revenues in the longer term.
Additional reporting by Kevin Dougherty in Herouxville, Quebec, and Andrea Hopkins in Toronto, editing by Ross Colvin