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Layton strikes leaderly tone in ads, rhetoric as polls put NDP second

Imagine all the people, voting NDP.

Jack Layton is no John Lennon, but the piano-playing, left-leaning NDP leader is nonetheless urging Canadian voters to explore the boundaries of their political imaginations.

The party's latest ad, titled "Imagine," urges viewers to think seriously about making a prime minister of Layton — a man whose party has never had the heft to genuinely challenge the Liberals or the Conservatives.

It's a dramatic departure from the usual fare of animated cut-outs and low-budget Tory bashing, another clear sign that with opinion polls suggesting a surge in popularity in Quebec and elsewhere, the NDP is in unfamiliar territory.

No one, it seems, knows that better than their leader.

"I'm a New Democrat," a pragmatic-sounding Layton said Tuesday during a campaign event in Montreal, when confronted with the reality that more votes may not mean more seats.

"We're used to working very, very hard, and having people come and be interested in our ideas, but then because of our current electoral system we don't get the number of seats that are warranted by the percentage of vote that we get."

A new Ekos poll released Tuesday had the NDP at 28 per cent, just six points back of the Conservatives at 34 per cent, and well clear of the Liberals at 24 per cent.

The Green party was at 6.8 per cent, another victim of the NDP surge, while the Bloc Quebecois stood firm at six per cent.

The poll was conducted Saturday through Monday and randomly surveyed 2,532 Canadians. It carries a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Layton is in unfamiliar waters on policy issues as well as polls, tackling issues the NDP hasn't historically talked much about — such as bringing Quebec into the Constitution.

He's appropriated Lucien Bouchard's "winning conditions" — a term the former Quebec premier once used to describe the road to another sovereignty referendum — for his own use, presumably to soothe separatist-minded Quebecers.

"We have this historic problem that we have a quarter of the population, the people of Quebec, who have never signed on to the Constitution," he said.

"It remains a significant gap in our political history and our political context, and has to be addressed someday."

Just when "someday" is, Layton won't say. He's got more pressing concerns.

"The issues of immediate concern to people are getting a job, the fact they don't have family doctors, the retirement security of seniors," he said. "Those are the immediate issues."

With the luxury of momentum, Layton is taking his campaign to the so-called "high road," hoping to appear prime ministerial and above the fray as election day nears.

And as he finds himself in the sights of his Liberal and Conservative rivals, Layton is at pains not to take the bait.

"I'm not running for prime minister in order to attack other party leaders," he said when asked about a recent barrage of Liberal attack ads targeting the NDP.

"I am running — and I've been in political life a long time — to attack the issues and the problems that people are facing."

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