On eve of the NDP's first post-election budget, the party that trounced the Tories last fall is now trailing among voters, just not in Winnipeg where it counts.
According to the latest Probe Research/Winnipeg Free Press poll, the Tories have the support of 45 per cent of Manitobans, even though the opposition party is in leadership limbo.
Meanwhile, province-wide support for the NDP has dropped seven points to 40 per cent. In Winnipeg, the NDP's new stronghold and where elections are won and lost, support for the New Democrats has dwindled somewhat, from 52 per cent to 48 per cent.
But that has not translated into more potential votes for the Tories, who failed to pick up a single new seat in Winnipeg last fall. Support for the Progressive Conservatives in Winnipeg held steady at 35 per cent.
"They need to move those numbers," said Probe president Scott MacKay. "Without them, they're not going to form the government."
Just as the U.S. presidential election is so far being waged over women, MacKay says the next few years, and the next provincial election, could be a battle for the hearts and minds of female voters, especially in battleground Winnipeg.
The NDP has traditionally enjoyed "overwhelming" support among women, said MacKay, but that base is beginning to erode. The Tories have the support of 41 per cent of women polled, while the NDP has the support of only marginally more at 44 per cent.
Research has shown women tend to be more committed voters, and they tend to be more progressive, favouring action on "soft" issues such as health care and education rather than tax cuts and debt reduction. Crafting a message that appeals to urban women without alienating the party's more traditionally conservative and rural base could be the key challenge for the Tories in the coming years.
Tory leadership candidate Brian Pallister, the only person so far running to pilot the party, said his strategy for wooing Winnipeg starts with including more people and listening more effectively to new ideas, especially in the development of party policy.
"To build any organization, any public service organization, you better be listening, you better be reaching out," he said.
He said voters, including those in Winnipeg, respond to hard work and a party that earns respect by doing the job it was elected to do -- offering an effective opposition to the NDP, despite being at a David-and-Goliath kind of disadvantage.
Pallister is about to open a campaign office in Winnipeg's most urban neighbourhood, Osborne Village. And he is quick to say he has lived in Winnipeg half his adult life and served as a champion for the city nationally and internationally.
But he is best known as an MLA and provincial cabinet minister from Portage la Prairie, for his role as a Canadian Alliance MP during the split in the Canadian conservative movement, and for being a proponent of fiscal discipline. In the Filmon government, his private member's bill became the province's balanced-budget legislation, the same legislation that mandates a referendum for any significant tax hikes.
Pallister rejected the suggestion his rural, conservative roots might be seen as baggage among some Winnipeg voters. He said he will not shy away from his political record.
"Authenticity matters," he said. "I don't try to be something I'm not."
The latest Probe poll also demonstrates the continued efficiency of the NDP's vote -- among the most remarkable elements of last October's election.
On voting day, the Tories and New Democrats earned almost the same percentage of the popular vote. But the NDP won twice the number of seats because its strength was concentrated in Winnipeg and in a small handful of rural ridings.
The Tories boosted their share of the popular vote significantly, but won no new seats.
"People forget how well the Tories really did do because the outcome was so stunning," MacKay said. "It was only ever a question of how many seats the NDP will lose, and they didn't lose any."
The poll question
If a provincial election were held tomorrow, which party's candidate would you be most likely to support?
Progressive Conservative45%(election - 43%)
40% (earned 47% of the vote in the Oct. 4, 2011 election)
(election - 8%)
5% (election - 3%)
Probe Research telephoned a random and representative sampling of 1,000 Manitobans between March 19 and April 4. With a sample that size, one can say with 95 per cent certainty the results are within plus-or-minus 3.1 percentage points of what they would have been if the entire adult population of Manitoba had been interviewed.