TORONTO - Despite a healthy dose of skepticism, political observers are keeping a close eye on a southwestern Ontario riding where a veteran Conservative incumbent has a Green candidate nipping at his heels.

Shane Jolley, a married father of three who sells organic and sweatshop-free clothing out of an "alternative'' bicycle shop in Owen Sound, Ont., won nearly 13 per cent of the popular vote when he ran for the Greens in the 2006 federal campaign.

Recent polls suggest Jolley -- running in only his second election, this time as a provincial candidate --has about 28 per cent support in the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, nine points behind frank-talking Conserative "maverick'' Bill Murdoch.

Should he win, Jolley would become the first-ever Green hopeful to win a seat in provincial or federal parliament.

The situation has the party on tenterhooks. Green Leader Frank de Jong abruptly changed his weekend itinerary, opting to spend some time in Owen Sound showing Jolley some support.

"We know that we are in a close second at this point and that is very exciting for us,'' Jolley said in an interview.

"We also know we have a lot more work to do before Wednesday, so we're just going to keep at it and we're quite certain here that we can make Canadian history by electing the first Green seat in any Canadian legislature.''

While Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound has typically been a Conservative stronghold, Jolley said many constituents began questioning their loyalties after Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory announced his controversial plan to publicly fund private faith-based schools.

In the wake of the ensuing controversy, Murdoch was the first of a handful of Conservatives to publicly refuse to support the measure -- a "flip-flop'' Jolley attributes to the fear of losing to the Greens.

Murdoch said he changed his mind and promised to vote against the proposal when he realized how much his constituents were against it.

But instead of winning back supporters, Jolley said he's confident voters will view both Murdoch and Tory, who has effectively killed the idea with the promise of a free vote in the legislature, as willing to do anything necessary to get elected.

"He's lost his credibility and so has Mr. Tory,'' Jolley said.

"They started this campaign talking about leadership, strong leadership, and now people are really questioning that. It's damage control, and I think once you're into damage control mode, you're in trouble.''

De Jong said he believes the Greens have actually won many people over with a plan to scrap the Catholic board and create a single unified public school system.

"Things are doing very well across the province,'' he said with a week to go before the vote.

"We're receiving unprecedented support and a lot of people are switching from the other parties. I think we're attracting people from the left and the right.''

The experts, however, continue to insist de Jong isn't likely to beat Liberal incumbent Tony Ruprecht in the downtown Toronto riding of Davenport.

Nor, Jolley said, will he step aside to make room for de Jong should he win in Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, in accordance with long-standing parliamentary practice.

"That has generally been the practice of other parties, but no, we won't do that,'' Jolley said. "That whole phenomena of giving a seat away is, in my opinion, an insult to the democratic process.''

He said the Green party, which in its early days avoided even naming a leader, has always supported grassroots democracy, local participation and local control.

"The voters are voting for me. They're voting for their local representative who understands their local issues,'' Jolley said.

"If we were to transfer that seat, that is basically saying to the voters that we don't care about your local concerns, we only care about the Green party. I would never, never do that.''

Little hope for Green candidates

While Jolley has become a beacon of hope for the Greens, neither he nor any other Green candidate will be making history any time soon, said Henry Jacek, a professor of politics at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Jacek said he wouldn't be surprised to see the Greens place second in a rural riding like Owen Sound, where people may be inclined to "make a statement'' by voting for a party other than the Liberals or NDP.

But Murdoch, he said, is a "constituency man'' who is "very close to his people'' and he doubts the Greens will be able to oust him.

"I think they probably did the best they could, but I don't think they're going to win any seats,'' he said. "It's very hard in our type of system.''

Rather than trying to push people to vote Green, Jacek said the party should have focused its campaign on getting people to vote for electoral reform during Wednesday's referendum.

Under the proposed mixed-member proportional electoral system, or MMP, the Green party could get up to 10 per cent of the popular vote and about as many seats.

A Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey released several days ago suggests support for the Greens across Canada is on the rise.

Under MMP, voters might be less likely to abandon a Green vote for fear it's a wasted ballot, since the system is more representative of the outcome of the popular vote.

The poll suggests the Greens could fare better, at least federally, even under the current "first-past-the-post'' electoral system.