The battle for Saint-Lambert

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National Post, Friday, August 15, 2008

Of the two federal by-elections upcoming in Quebec on Sept. 8, the more interesting and competitive riding, by far, is Saint-Lambert, on the suburban south shore of Montreal.

The other one, Westmount-Ville Marie, is what it is -- one of the safest Liberal seats in creation. The Liberal candidate, Marc Garneau, was the first Canadian in space, and begins with close to 100% name recognition. And the inherent Liberal brand equity is a huge comparative advantage in a riding the Liberals last lost 50 years ago. This is a slam dunk.

Saint-Lambert, just across the Jacques Cartier and Victoria bridges from Montreal, on the other hand, is the kind of story-in-waiting that never quite announces itself until it springs a big surprise on election day.

The Saint-Lambert area code is 450, which encompasses the suburban ring around the island of Montreal, and it's a very different place from 514, the city; just as suburban 905 has a political culture very different from that of 416 in metro Toronto.

The anglophone and allophone voters in Montreal make 514 one of the most reliable Liberal zones in the country. But 450 is full of swing seats. In the last five elections, the area has witnessed fiercely contested battles between the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois.

But since the Conservatives broke through in Quebec in 2006, they have replaced the Liberals as the competitive federalist party everywhere off the island of Montreal, including 450. A regional breakout of a CROP poll three months ago had the Bloc and Conservatives tied at about 30% each in 450, with the Liberals running a distant third at around 20%.

That's what makes Saint-Lambert an interesting story. Though the Bloc should easily retain a riding it won with 45% of the vote in 2006 (to the Liberals 23% and the Conservatives 20%), their vote is in decline in 450, while the Conservatives are on the rise.

There are three municipalities in the riding, Longueuil, St. Lambert and Greenfield Park. The Bloc and the Conservatives will be competitive in Longueuil, which has a strong nationalist history; and the Liberals and Conservatives figure to be the main rivals in leafy St. Lambert. A close election could be decided in Greenfield Park, where blue-collar anglophones could tilt from the Liberals to the Conservatives.

This, at least, was the hope of the Conservatives when they sent Stephen Harper there to attend St. Jean Baptiste festivities in Greenfield Park.

The Conservatives have two messages. One is that they have become the block-the-Bloc party, and there shouldn't be a division of the federalist vote; the other is that a vote for the Bloc is a vote for perpetual opposition, while the Conservatives are the party of government.

To underline this point, a couple of weeks ago, Trade Minister Michael Fortier made a helicopter announcement with Defence Minister Peter MacKay in Longueuil, where they don't make helicopters, though Pratt & Whitney makes aircraft engines there.

Then there are the third-party endorsements from local politicians. The Mayor of Longueuil has endorsed the Conservative candidate, Patrick Clune, a riding resident making his third try for the seat. So have several local councillors in Greenfield Park. The Mayor of St. Lambert, Sean Finn, is neutral in the race, but as a senior vice-president of CN, he does business with Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, Harper's Quebec lieutenant, on a pretty regular basis.

The local Liberal member of the National Assembly, Nicole Menard, is supporting Clune, and that's not the only indication that Premier Jean Charest's Big Red Machine is backing the Conservatives. Some top organizers of the Quebec Liberal Party are working in the back room, and raising money, for Clune. This simply wouldn't occur without Charest's knowledge and approval.

The Conservatives don't have a ground game of their own in Quebec, but la machine rouge could be the only one they need. The Liberal candidate, Roxane Stanners, is a Dionista parachute without a real organization, either. Running without the support of the provincial Liberal cousins, she is simply not competitive with Clune and the Bloc's Josee Beaudin. As for the NDP's Richard Marois, his party has been trending into double digits in Quebec, to the detriment of the Bloc and the benefit of the Conservatives.

Watch Saint-Lambert. It could very well be a tight race -- with an interesting conclusion.

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