OTTAWA - Projections that visible minorities will soon dominate Canada's cities are no surprise to political operators in Ottawa.

All three of the major national parties are developing aggressive strategies to rip away ethnic support from each other, in the belief that immigrant voters hold the key to power in the next election.

They're well aware that if they don't figure out how to woo that vote now, their problems will only mount in the future. Behind all the photo ops of politicians with dancers in traditional costumes and the dinners of ethnic food and drink there is a nasty fight brewing for a growing part of the electorate whose votes are up for grabs.

"This is going to be at the core of the next election," said social scientist Keith Banting of Queen's University School of Policy Studies in Kingston, Ont.

Statistics Canada says that by 2031, almost one-half of Canadians over the age of 15 will be foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent. The number of visible minorities will likely double by then. And almost all those visible minorities will be living in cities, primarily Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

"It's a slow-motion redrawing of the political map," said pollster Allan Gregg, chairman of Harris-Decima Research.

Growing immigrant populations are fertile ground for the major political parties, especially because the Liberals' traditional lock on ethnic communities has broken.

In the last election, the Liberals saw their grip slip, mainly to the benefit of Conservatives in suburban areas. Indeed, Gregg said Conservatives made their biggest gains in ridings known for their large populations of visible minorities.

"What's happened with the Liberal Party is they had such a dominant position with the new-arrival community that they took it for granted that nothing was changing," Gregg said. "They were asleep at the switch. They didn't realize how different immigration was."

The Liberals relied on a stronghold of European immigrants that dominated the flow to Canada in previous decades. But now, the flow of newcomers is mainly Asian -- visible minorities with different values than the older generation.

The South Asian population is expected to at least double to between 3.2 million and 4.1 million within 20 years, Statistics Canada said. The Chinese population is expected to grow to between 2.4 million and four million, up from 1.3 million.

And now, with an eye on the next election not to mention the longer term, the Conservatives are ramping up their efforts. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is the ringleader, rarely passing up an opportunity to attend a cultural event or talk to a journalist from the ethnic media.

At first, for the 2006 election, the Tory approach was to merely make contact with large ethnic groups and attempt to build some trust and understanding by paying attention to cultural demands. But after their success in 2008, they're targeting smaller communities too, and moving beyond the focus on ethnicity.

Backed by a large communications team and plenty of funding, their pitch is to appeal to the small-c conservative values among the small business owners and the tightly-knit families that characterize many ethnic groups that have revolutionized Canadian suburbs.

Ridings ringing Toronto and Vancouver are their main targets, but they're also hoping to penetrate the City of Toronto itself, taking on Liberal strongholds.

Joe Volpe's Eglinton-Lawrence riding offers a bitter taste of what's to come. After years of comfortable victories, the long-time Liberal won his seat by a narrow 4.9-per-cent margin in 2008. Heading into the next election, Conservatives believe the large Filipino and Jewish populations in the riding are ripe for picking.

The large Filipino population likely won't forget last spring's nanny misadventures of Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla, in nearby Brampton. And the Tories have spent much political capital wooing the Jewish vote, flooding mailboxes with pro-Israel, anti-Liberal flyers.

"There's a rewriting of history that doesn't reflect reality," charges Volpe. It's this condescending, dismissive view. That's the new dynamic."

Generally, the Conservative agenda of strong family values, law and order, and entrepreneurship resonates to a certain extent, says Gregg.

But he says the Conservatives are walking a fine line with their courtship by appealing directly to ethnicity, since many immigrants don't define themselves primarily by their cultural identity.

That's why the Liberals say they take a different approach. They are quietly alarmed at the erosion of immigrant support they had always counted on. But they're convinced that their vision of a brighter future for Canada is something that has broad appeal for immigrants and long-time Canadians alike.

"The whole action of reaching out to ethno-cultural communities has to change," said MP Maurizio Bevilacqua, whose Toronto-area riding is a tapestry of ethnicity. "It's not just about going to the local festivities. People have concerns that go beyond their cultural existence. They care about health care, debt, the future of their children."

Especially as immigrant populations become synonymous with mainstream Canada, it's condescending to appeal simply to ethnicity, he said.

Indeed, as an election draws closer, Liberals suggest they won't hesitate to make an issue of the Conservative efforts to focus on race.

But Tory strategists are not only the Liberals' concern. The NDP has formed a task force to explore electoral inroads, named Vancouver-area MP Peter Julian to lead an outreach effort, and hired a point-person to handle ethnic media.

Like the Liberals, the NDP's pitch focuses on the need to create jobs, stabilize the country's social safety net and take care of the elderly.

But the NDP says its main opposition on the ground comes from the Tories. The Conservatives say the same thing about the NDP. Both parties contend they don't feel much heat from the Liberals.