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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's Liberal Party, which has run the country more often than any other and seen itself as the natural governing party, could be relegated to a supporting role in a suddenly dramatic federal election.
The leftist New Democratic Party has knocked the Liberals to third place in the closing days of the campaign for the May 2 election and made it hugely unlikely that the Liberals could replace the ruling Conservatives in government.
"The extent of the Liberal Party of Canada's humiliation (is becoming) harder to deny," veteran Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella said on his blog on Wednesday.
"So sit back and enjoy your cup of hemlock, federal Liberal ostriches. It'll all be over soon," said Kinsella, who has run the Liberal war room in the past but is now bitterly observing the campaign from the outside.
For most of the campaign, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had warned that unless he got a majority, the Liberals would try to take power, helped by the New Democrats.
The prospect of the NDP taking power with the help of the Liberals now looks more likely than a Liberal-led government.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff promised early in the campaign he would not form a coalition and distanced himself from the idea of taking power with the help of another party.
He said on Wednesday he still expected to form a Liberal government, but he spent a great deal of time explaining how the Liberals and NDP had worked well together in the past.
"I'm happy to work with the NDP -- not in coalition -- but side by side, project by project, and I think we could give great government for Canadians," he told CTV television.
But Kinsella, who had urged the NDP and the Liberals to merge to avoid splitting the center-left vote, said it was folly for Liberals to assume that the New Democrats would want to discuss a merger or coalition with them now.
"Trust me, they won't. Why negotiate away your existence when you (now) hold the upper hand? Coalition/merger is dead, people. Dead," he said.
The Liberals have run a reasonably smooth campaign, but the charisma of NDP leader Jack Layton, combined with promises of a big jump in spending funded by higher corporate taxes have appealed to voters more.
In an astonishingly frank admission, Justin Trudeau, considered a possible Liberal leader, said perhaps some Liberals had "sat back and rested easy."
"Honestly, we're having a little bit of trouble connecting with voters," Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, told the Sun News Network on Tuesday.
The Liberals won three successive majority governments in 1993, 1997 and 2000, and a minority government in 2004 before losing to the Conservatives in 2006.
The Liberal vote dwindled after revelations in 2004 that the party had diverted public money to party coffers under the guise of a program designed to combat Quebec separatism.
In the 2008 election, the Liberals won their lowest share of the vote since Confederation in 1867, at 26.2 percent. If they're to be believed, the polls point to an even more dismal showing on May 2.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Janet Guttsman and Rob Wilson