From the very start, the main issue in the federal election race has been as obvious as the beard on Tom Mulcair’s face, but it’s been largely ignored by mainstream media. The majority of voters have said in opinion polls that by far the biggest issue for them is to have either the NDP or Liberals emerge as the party that can soundly defeat Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

During the fourth week of the campaign, it looked like the NDP might be the chosen party. They were at 33.9 per cent in the polls. The Conservatives were at 28.4 per cent, and the Liberals 27.9, according to polling site Threehundredeight.

It looked like the NDP might jump to, say, 36 or 38 per cent in the polls and become the party to stop Harper. But it didn’t happen. Instead, the NDP fell back a little.

The NDP might be suffering because of Mulcair’s promise to balance the budget. This is not playing well with Canadians who question how the NDP is going to both balance the budget and pay for all the promises they’ve made. Meanwhile, many progressives who believe the government should borrow to stimulate the economy – as Trudeau promised to do – are upset with the NDP for adopting an overly-cautious position.

Tuesday’s opinion polls showed that, the NDP was at 32 per cent, the Liberals at 30, and the Conservatives at 29.

This week the NDP faces two big hurdles. Today, Mulcair will release figures showing how the party would pay for its election promises. And on Thursday, he will join the other two leaders in a televised debate on the economy. If Mulcair survives the attacks he will face during Thursday’s debate, the NDP should still be in the race.

Some analysts have written off Harper – largely because they thought the Conservatives took a big hit during the frantic Syrian refugee acrimony. But in a Nanos Research poll, the Conservatives were back to 30 per cent, tied with the Liberals.

Counting on non-Conservative supporters to stay home on election day

As in past elections, Harper could benefit from a couple of new “dirty tricks”:

When the Conservatives oversaw the re-jigging of ridings and the addition of new seats for Parliament, they rigged the system in their favour. Globe and Mail's analysis of Elections Canada data shows that if everyone who voted in the 2011 election cast their ballots for the same political parties in 2015, the Conservatives would pick up 22 of the 30 seats that are being added in a riding redistribution. NDP would pick up six ridings and the Liberals two.

The big sleeper in the campaign that could mean victory for the Conservatives depends on whether hundreds of thousands of people who favour the NDP or the Liberals can actually manage to vote. According to the Council of Canadians, the so-called Fair Elections Act makes it more difficult for at least 770,000 Canadians to vote.

There’s another factor favouring the Conservatives. A huge percentage of people who say they will vote Conservative do so. But a lot of people recorded in the polls as favouring the other parties end up not voting on election day.

Harper’s prayer is for the NDP and Liberals to stay tied in the polls so he can sneak back into power with just a few more seats than either of the two.

Strategic voting, a powerful tool — if it's used

Conservative opponents believe they have a powerful weapon in their back pocket: strategic voting. Unions and public interest groups used strategic voting to help defeat Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives in last year’s Ontario election and, including all the work of small groups, there will be a much larger effort to unseat Harper.

But can the anti-Harper campaign really do the job? There are a few problems that must be overcome.

First of all, there are two anti-Harper camps. One group consists of strong NDP loyalists who dislike the Liberals just about as much or more than they hate the Conservatives. The other group is supporting either NDP or Liberal candidates in different ridings.

Given that just about everyone agrees that Harper is the Public Enemy Number One, the two camps should avoid feuding that could reduce the chances of defeating the Conservatives.

Strategic campaigning got off to a rocky start when Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and an NDP loyalist, blasted Leadnow’s approach of electing either New Democrats or Liberals in 72 ridings where the Conservatives are believed to be vulnerable.

Unfortunately, Moist supports the NDP over the interests of the country: an analysis of the 72 target ridings shows that Leadnow will be supporting Liberals only in ridings where the NDP has no chance of winning.

The two sides need to have a truce concerning their campaigns. In fact, they should figure out where there are any strategic ridings where New Democrats oppose Liberals and decide how to resolve the issue. Given the importance of stopping Harper, perhaps they could support the same candidates in a handful of ridings.

More needs to be done. With only five weeks left in the campaign, there’s practically no cooperation among the more than a dozen large and small groups working to elect either New Democrats or Liberals. Some groups have the impression that the Elections Act prohibit them from co-operating, but this does not appear to be the case as the Act concerns itself only with advertising.

Groups need to co-operate to make sure that local polling is carried out in all ridings where Harper is vulnerable. Results must be shared and made public a few days before the advance polling dates, which run from October 9 to 12.

Groups also should co-operate to publish a list of the target ridings indicating which candidate has the best chance of defeating the Conservative. Just publishing information on their own websites will not be enough to inform the hundreds-of-thousands of potential voters.

If either, or both, of the NDP voting campaign and the strategic voting campaign are successful, the Harper government will fall on October 19. If the NDP wins, Mulcair has promised to launch a process to introduce proportional representation. PR could bring us the kind of democracy we deserve and, thankfully, the end of strategic voting.