Looking to pick up a few bucks making long-shot bets on the federal election? Then you just might want to consider the recently renamed riding of Toronto Centre as one of your possible dark horses on June 28. Oh, I know. Less than a month ago, this downtown constituency was thought to be one of the safest Liberal seats in the city, if not the entire country. MP Bill Graham's considerable stature as a parliamentary rep only seemed enhanced by his work with the foreign affairs portfolio, and NDP candidate Michael Shapcott was perceived as a mere nuisance to be endured en route to re-election.
Perhaps that's still the case. But there's been a lot of noise coming from the streets running south from upscale Rosedale - through Cabbagetown and the St. James Town and Regent Park housing projects to the moribund shore of Lake Ontario - suggesting Graham's re-election might not be a foregone conclusion.
First, there was all that chatter about an internal Liberal poll that puts Graham and well-known housing activist Shapcott neck and neck in pursuit of the affections of eligible voters. That dovetailed quite nicely with New Democrat canvassers' reports about the warm reception they've been getting on the hustings of late.
"From what I'm hearing, Michael Shapcott seems to be doing quite well," says Pam McConnell, the NDP councillor who represents half the riding at City Hall. "It's beginning to have the look of a real fight between the Liberals and the NDP."
Shapcott's been campaigning in the area since he won his party's nomination back in February. He claims there are now more than 300 volunteers working overtime to get him elected.
"A lot of evidence suggests to us that there's a real sea change happening in this riding," says Shapcott. The man who first made a name for himself locally as an outspoken critic of the city's failed quest for the 1996 Olympics is careful not to belittle the incumbent or his accomplishments in government.
But Shapcott insists that what's happening for the NDP in Trinity-Spadina, Toronto-Danforth, Parkdale-High Park and Beaches-East York is also coming to pass in the downtown core.
"The Liberal vote is collapsing," he declares emphatically. "I think the biggest reason has been the Paul Martin factor. There's also a real sense among a lot of people that Toronto has been forgotten by the federal Liberal government. And the provincial Liberal fall from grace has had a huge impact."
This seems to come as news to the folks working the phones at Graham's campaign headquarters on the corner of Gerrard and Sherbourne.
"No internal polling that I've seen indicates it's as close as some people are suggesting," says Graham's campaign manager, Jeremy Broadhurst. He concedes that "it's not the happiest electorate out there, and there is frustration" with the government in Ottawa. But that won't be a big enough factor to unseat Graham, who has "a tremendous personal appeal on a lot of different levels," the incumbent's handler maintains.
But Broadhurst's confidence fades somewhat when he starts to discuss what's at stake in the Toronto Centre contest.
"Although the NDP can finish second, they can't win this riding," he argues. "All they can end up doing is taking votes away from us so that, in theory, the Conservatives can win."
In reality, there's little chance that financial consultant Megan Harris will be victorious for the Tories in this riding. True, she has managed to get quite a few of her signs erected around Regent Park, of all places. And she could bleed ballots away from Graham north of Bloor, home to 80 per cent of the riding's voting population, where the Liberals face less of a challenge from the New Democrats. But a win? No way.
Still, Broadhurst keeps coming back to the Tory threat, underlining it with the fact that Graham lost to a Conservative candidate by less than 100 votes in 1988, when the NDP candidate got 5,000 ballots.
"That's what this race is about," the campaign manager says. "Do you want a Conservative government that will lead you down a road of mismanagement and irresponsible tax cuts that somebody's going to have to clean up later on?"
Shapcott says the fact Graham's campaign is dragging out the "Tory bogeyman" in a bid to scare voters away from the NDP is evidence of growing Liberal desperation.
And, according to at least one Grit organizer, that assessment isn't far off the mark. He said the Conservative fear factor has become a "last line of defence" in what were once considered bastions of Liberal support in and around Toronto.
"I wouldn't have thought Bill would be in trouble, but then a lot of things have caught me by surprise in this campaign," the veteran Liberal insider noted. "Just let me say that if Bill goes down, then a lot of guys are going down."
Michael Shapcott is counting on it.