It's game on in Lac-Saint-Louis

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The Gazette, Tuesday, April 26, 2011

If the poll numbers Larry Smith has in his pocket are accurate, the race in the West Island riding of Lac-Saint-Louis is much more competitive than previously indicated.

A Léger poll of the riding for Smith's campaign has the Liberals at 36 per cent, the Conservatives at 30 per cent and the NDP at 17 per cent. The telephone poll of 500 respondents was conducted after the leaders' debates.

(Meanwhile the CROP Web poll, which put the NDP in first place provincewide, has Jack's Layton's party at 45 per cent among non-francophones, with the Conservatives at 25 per cent and the Liberals at 20 per cent. Yeah, right. The NDP are sweeping the West Island.)

Looking inside the Léger riding poll, which is to be taken seriously, 71 per cent of respondents think the Conservatives are going to win the election, and only 15 per cent think the Liberals will win. Stated another way, fewer than half of Liberal voters think the Liberals will win.

"People have a decision to make," Smith was saying the other morning at the coffee shop of the Holiday Inn in Pointe Claire. "A decision about whether they want to be at the table."

Though he didn't say so, it was clear which table he was talking about: the cabinet table.

Fourth quarter, down a touchdown. Game on.

Smith has been there before. He has six Grey Cup rings, three as a wide receiver for the Alouettes in the 1970s, and another three as president of the team in the past decade.

Smith has known from the beginning that his candidacy was an odds-against proposition. From his background in marketing, he has great respect for the equity of the Liberal brand among English-speaking Quebecers (it's dead in francophone Quebec, but that's another story). He doesn't have an unkind word to say about the Liberal incumbent, Francis Scarpaleggia. Everyone likes Francis; he's regarded as a low-key but effective constituency man.

But he's not regarded as cabinet material, and in any event, the Liberals are losing and could conceivably finish third if the NDP tide rises in Quebec as well as Ontario and British Columbia. If the preposterous CROP poll is to believed, NDP candidate Alain Ackad will be the next member from Lac-Saint-Louis.

As for Smith, he'll either go big or go home. He'll either be at the cabinet table, advocating for a dedicated rail line for the Train de l'ouest, a $600-million proposition not costed in the Tory platform, or he'll be going home to Hudson to get on with the rest of his life. As he turns 60 this week, it's all in the hands of the voters, and he's fine with that.

He's made his share of rookie errors, including his comment about the catastrophic pay cut he took to go the Senate, when no one feels sorry for people going to the Senate.

But he's also learned along the way, and in debates with Scarpaleggia has been gaffefree while making the case that Lac-Saint-Louis voters need to decide whether they'd rather be in government or opposition.

Montreal hasn't had a seat at the cabinet table since 2008, when Michael Fortier lost his bid to cross from the Senate to the House of Commons. When Smith sat with Stephen Harper at the Grey Cup last November, it was apparent they weren't just discussing football. By Christmas, Smith was in the Senate, though he was clear that a cabinet seat had to be earned by election to the House. In the short time he was there, Smith saw enough of Harper to be impressed by his skills at caucus management. "I know what it is to be on a team," Smith says. "He's a good team leader."

Late in the fourth quarter, Smith is trying to mount a closing drive for a seat the Conservatives haven't won since the 1984 Mulroney sweep and the 1988 free-trade election.

He might take a word of encouragement from Brian Mulroney himself: "The anglophones of the West Island were the last votes to fall to us," says the former prime minister. "They only came to us in the last week, right at the end."

In less than a week, Smith will know.

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