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YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories (Reuters) - With every successive poll expanding the possibilities for Canada's once-overlooked New Democratic Party, the rallies get bigger and louder.
Federal NDP campaigns haven't always been a celebration, and the most the party could hope for in the past was the election of a small, but influential rump of parliamentarians.
But the party's surprising surge to second place ahead of the May 2 election has galvanized supporters and given party leader Jack Layton a still-uncertain shot at power.
"It's thrilling, a long time in coming," computer consultant Tom Hamilton, an NDP supporter for 30 years, said at a raucous rally in the Albertan capital Edmonton on Wednesday. "Hard to believe."
The left-leaning NDP has only one elected Member of Parliament in the strongly Conservative province of Alberta, and the Edmonton rally for Layton roughly doubled in size from the party's visit there to start the campaign, with about 700 supporters pouring into an old aircraft hanger.
The NDP says it will raise corporate taxes and bring in a cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But it will still balance the budget by 2014-15, a goal shared with the ruling Conservatives.
The jubilant mood extended onto Layton's charter plane, where the leader, his staff and reporters ate pizza at a 1980s-themed party with strobe lights and disco balls.
The party's surge could split the center-left vote and hand the ruling Conservatives a majority in the May 2 election. Or it could give the party a chance of forming its first government, in coalition with the faltering Liberals.
The mood is somewhat blacker in the Conservative camp, where Prime Minister Steven Harper dismissed suggestions that the Conservatives waited too late to react to the NDP surge and aides acknowledge they are in uncharted political waters.
"I don't think this changes the fundamental calculations," Harper told reporters in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where he attacked the NDP as being and "ideological throw-back" on issues such as trade.
The Conservatives hit Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff with attack advertisements for months before the election campaign even began, but Harper aides admit they did not expect the Liberals to collapse this far.
If the polls are right, the Liberal party is heading for one of its worst election performances ever.
"We expected him (Ignatieff) to fight back more," said a Conservative campaign official, suggesting the Liberals ignored the threat to their base caused by the New Democrats until it was too late.
The NDP surge is hurting the Conservatives in British Columbia on the Pacific coast and possibly in the prairie province of Saskatchewan. The Conservatives hoped to pick up Liberal votes in Ontario, but that is not happening enough to help them offset the unexpected losses.
"The race is different in different part of the country," Harper said.
Throughout the campaign the Conservatives have attacked the idea of the opposition parties forming a "coalition government," but they only recently began suggesting that Layton rather than Ignatieff would be its leader.
The Conservatives face another obstacle in getting their anti- NDP message out. The Royal Wedding is set to dominate Canadian news coverage on Friday and through the weekend. The election is on Monday.
Additional reporting by Allan Dowd in Niagara Falls