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Is Maloway getting bruinooged?

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Elmwood-Transcona hasn't been on most people's lists of ridings to watch, including mine. But in the last few days, several politicos of all stripes have hinted that NDP MP Jim Maloway may be in a tighter race than expected. His key challenger, Tory Lawrence Toet, has a significant number of signs up in the riding and is no rookie on the campaign trail. He ran Thomas Steen's successful bid for a council seat last fall, and my impression is Toet was the tough brain behind Steen's gentle charm. Toet was also one of the area's leading challengers of the proposed OlyWest hog processing plant, a fight that took many months and consumed the riding.

Last week, NDP Coun. Russ Wyatt switched teams and endorsed Toet. Then NDP Leader Jack Layton took time out of his red-hot national campaign to weigh in on the most parochial of riding issues, the Plessis Road underpass. That's when I started to inquire whether Maloway might be in trouble. I know underpasses are perennial backyard problems in Winnipeg, but it's still unusual for a national leader to issue an unsolicited press release on one in particular.

Both Toet and Maloway have seized on the underpass as a local wedge issue, which is a bit baffling since every level of government has agreed the underpass is worthy of tripartite infrastructure dollars. The provincial NDP mentioned it in their budget and the city's got it on its infrastructure priority list. Senior federal minister Vic Toews said he's in if the other two levels of government are, with the reasonable caveat that he can't set it in stone until after the election. No matter. Now the Elmwood candidates appear to be arguing over who got to the Plessis Road party first.

Anyway, it's worth noting that Maloway beat Steen in Elmwood-Transcona in the 2008 federal election by just 1,500 votes, significantly less than the riding's longtime former rep, NDPer Bill Blaikie. The riding has changed a little since Blaikie's time - there are some new suburbs that aren't as friendly to the NDP, and part of the riding rejected an NDP candidate for council last fall. This election, the Liberals are running a stronger campaign - candidate Ilona Niemczyk has been working since the fall. That could eat into Maloway's margin.

On the other hand, Maloway is a veteran campaigner, good at keeping things local and working his lists. He would likely get a bounce from the NDP's strong showing in the nation polls, and this time he's not running against the city's overdeveloped sense of nostalgia in the form of a Winnipeg Jets star. I've learned not to underestimate Maloway, but I still remember the sinking WTF feeling in 2006, when I was in Selkirk instead of Winnipeg South, where the real story of the night was going down.

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