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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Hobbled by hip surgery and recovering from cancer, maverick New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton looked like an early loser in Canada's election campaign.
But Layton's leftist party has surged to parity with the Liberals in recent opinion polls, a rise that will throw new focus on its policy promises, and create long-shot odds that Layton could become Canada's first NDP prime minister.
"The other parties may come after us. I think that Canadians are coming to the conclusion that maybe it's time for something new," Layton told a news conference on Monday in the Atlantic province of New Brunswick.
The NDP, founded in 1961 as a pro-labor party, has governed in several provinces, but never won power nationally.
It started the campaign for the May 2 election a distant third behind the Liberals and the ruling Conservatives, only to gain support as the Liberals faltered and Layton put in strong showings in mid-campaign debates.
The NDP's thinly scrutinized program promises tax breaks for small businesses and for taking on new employees.
The party will boost spending on education, the environment and social programs, and pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan immediately.
The party says it will fund that new spending with C$34 billion from higher corporate taxes and C$8.6 billion from what it calls a "tax haven crackdown." It will bring in C$21.5 billion over four years from oil companies and other big industrial energy consumers through a cap-and-trade carbon plan, and save C$8 billion by ending fossil-fuel subsidies.
The Globe and Mail newspaper on Monday cautioned voters away from the NDP: "Behind Mr. Layton is a party and a plan that remain, in important ways, stuck in the past."
The Liberal Party, which also wants to auction off carbon permits in a cap-and-trade system, said the NDP was hopelessly optimistic to think it can do this in the next few years.
"Jack Layton plans to spend nearly $30 billion in the next two years ($70 billion over the next four years) using fantasy money," the party said on Monday.
"His $70-billion spending plans will be financed by increasing our already crippling deficit, or he'll be forced to raise taxes on Canadian families. The NDP plan is just not credible."
The NDP rowed back a little on Saturday, saying that if revenues from the carbon plan were delayed or lower than planned, it would scale back or delay its spending. Layton promises to balance the budget by 2014-15.
The surge in support is quite a run for Layton, 60, who entered politics as a Toronto city councilor and consistently polls as the politician that Canadians would most like to have a beer with.
Balding and sporting a trademark mustache, Layton used to bike to Parliament, but now limps with a cane after hip surgery shortly before the campaign.
He never saw a microphone he did not like and would give interminable media availabilities outside the House of Commons when Parliament was in session.
Opinion polls now give around 25 percent support to both the Liberals and the NDP, compared with 35-43 percent for the Conservatives, pointing to another Parliament where the Conservatives have more seats than any other party.
But if the Conservatives again fail to get a majority, the three opposition parties could defeat them soon after Parliament convenes.
If that happens, the party with the next highest number of seats could be asked to try to form a government. If that's the NDP, and other parties back it, Layton becomes prime minister.
Editing by Janet Guttsman