Because Ontario has more than a third of the seats in the House of Commons, for a political party, forming government has always been contingent on winning Ontario.  While most polls show the Conservatives with a commanding national lead, they also show a tightening race in Ontario.

Since merging the Progressive Conservative Party and Canadian Alliance, the Conservative Party has been making steady gains in Ontario.   However, while they have won two minority governments they have not been able to make  gains in the 416 ridings or the 905 ridings that surround the city of Toronto (the exceptions being Peter Kent in Thornhill, Bob Dechert in Mississauga-Erindale and Julian Fantino in Vaughan, elected in a 2010 by-election).    Below are three key races where the Conservatives hope that star candidates and gradual gains will help them break-through in the GTA in 2011 and help them form that long-awaited majority government.

Eglinton Lawrence – On election night in 2008, many thought this riding would go blue but with a late push, MP Joe Volpe was able to hold on by less than 2,000 votes.  To put this in context, two years earlier Volpe carried the riding by a margin of 12,000 votes.  Conservative Candidate Joe Oliver is hoping his hard work over the past two years will pay off with a Conservative win on May 2nd.

Ajax-Pickering – There are few ridings that the Conservatives would rather win from the Liberals than Ajax-Pickering.  Liberal MP Mark Holland is a thorn in the Conservatives side and a relentless opposition critic.  It seems, however, that he should have spent more time working for his constituents than attacking the government because his vote margin shrunk to 3,000 in 2008.  Star candidate Christopher Alexander, a respected diplomat and former Ambassador to Afghanistan, is running for the Conservatives and they are banking that this, coupled with funnelling resources into the riding, will be enough to turn Ajax-Pickering blue.

York Centre –  Ken Dryden is likely questioning his vote to defeat the government as he finds himself in a very difficult fight in this riding.  The Canadian hockey legend once deemed unbeatable is facing star Conservative candidate Mark Adler, founder of the Toronto Economic Club.  Adler is hoping that with all of his hard work and the local popularity of the Prime Minister he can reverse Dryden’s 2,000 vote victory from 2008 and move York Centre into the Conservative corner on May 2nd.

The Liberal Party finds itself in many “knock down drag ‘em out“ battles with the NDP.  The most high profile is in Parkdale High Park where Liberal MP and former Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy is being challenged by the former NDP MP and current President of the NDP, Peggy Nash.  The Liberals hope to be able to make inroads in Northern Ontario by taking back Thunder Bay Superior North, Thunder Rainy River and Algoma from the NDP.  Interestingly as we have seen the Liberals improve in the polls they have been doing so at the expense of the NDP.  This is likely a deliberate strategy to make a serious play for these seats.

If it  is said that a week is forever in politics, three weeks is an eternity.  This week the Leaders will face-off in both the French and English debates so rest assured this campaign ain’t seen nothing yet!   As the rhetoric continues and fireworks fly, keep an eye on these ridings.  The way they go will influence how the entire election plays out.

Patrick Harris is a Senior Consultant in Hill+Knowlton Toronto’s Public Affairs practice.