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B.C. New Democrats hoping to come up the middle in Chilliwack-Hope

B.C. Liberal Candidate Laurie Throness greets supporters while canvassing on horseback in the farming community of Rosedale in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Friday, March 30, 2012.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Heather O'Donnell kept her shoes on as she cast her by-election ballot, although the same can't be said of all voters in this unincorporated Fraser Canyon community, population 206.

Some carried out their civic duty in socks, but only after they played a little five-pin at the Canyon Lanes bowling alley, where the advance poll for the Chilliwack-Hope by-election was held.

And why not hold it there? After all, if the NDP, Ms. O'Donnell's party of choice, claims victory, it might well be courtesy of a Liberal-Conservative split.

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The B.C. Liberal Party has said opposition New Democrats would craft reckless financial policies if they formed government. However, political observers say an NDP victory in the Chilliwack-Hope by-election wouldn't be all bad for Premier Christy Clark. Heading into next year's general election, it would lend credence to the Premier's claim the B.C. Conservative Party is splitting the so-called free-enterprise vote.

It's a split that a few years ago would have appeared far more difficult for the Conservatives to obtain than bowling's mere 7-10. In the 2009 provincial election, B.C. Liberal Barry Penner picked up more than 53 per cent of the district's votes. Conservative candidate Hans Mulder was a distant third at 7 per cent.

Much has changed since. Mr. Penner, first elected as a member of the legislature in 1996, gave up his seat in January to return to practising law. The Conservatives, previously plagued by infighting and lack of organization, have brought former member of Parliament John Cummins in as leader and made inroads on the Liberals' right flank. Recent province-wide polls by Angus Reid and Forum Research both have the Liberals and Conservatives tied for second in popular support. (Both surveys had the B.C. NDP well in front.)

Just how steep a challenge the governing Liberals face – inside and outside Chilliwack-Hope – was evident during an all-candidates meeting this week. Laurie Throness was routinely heckled by the audience as he answered questions about the Liberal track record. Some derisively used the phrase "families first," referencing the central theme of Ms. Clark's leadership agenda that she's been accused of casting aside. Her government's February budget hiked medical service premiums and the carbon tax.

Mr. Throness was joined at the all-candidates meeting, held at a Chilliwack high school, by Conservative John Martin and New Democrat Gwen O'Mahony, who finished second to Mr. Penner in 2009. Among other things, the three candidates fielded questions about health care, agriculture, lumber and pipelines.

The notes the candidates carried with them provided a glimpse into their personality.

Mr. Throness, former chief of staff to MP Chuck Strahl, had a well-organized binder, complete with brightly tabbed divider pages. He certainly gave the impression of someone who'd done a lot of reading of late, as he seamlessly tossed out statistics. "That's why we have a $35-million addition to our hospital here in Chilliwack," he said at one point. At another: "Since the B.C. Liberals have been in power, we've added 38,000 hectares to the [Agricultural Land Reserve.]

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Ms. O'Mahony, who works at a home for adults with developmental disabilities, carried just a few typed pages. She occasionally glanced down at them, but largely focused on connecting with the several dozen people in the audience on a personal level. At times, she showed a dry wit. After Mr. Martin took a poke at his Liberal rival, she said, "Now now, you two little fiscal conservatives."

Mr. Martin, a newspaper columnist, brought no notes. The media commentator relied on fiery statements to elicit applause. Of the vote-splitting suggestion, he said the Liberals were on the path to defeat long before the Conservatives re-energized. "I'd like to stop with this vote-splitting scenario, because the Liberals don't own those votes from anyone who's not an NDP supporter."

Hamish Telford, a political-science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, said the race is too close to call. He expected a hard-fought three-way battle and that's what he's seen.

Though the NDP has been much criticized by Ms. Clark since she took office last year, Mr. Telford said a New Democrat win would be much better news for the premier than a Conservative victory.

"If the NDP wins, I think there's a possible silver lining for the Liberals. Everything that Christy Clark has been saying about vote-splitting could now be true," he said.

Royce Koop, who teaches at the Simon Fraser University's School of Public Policy, echoed that thought. However, he predicted Mr. Martin would win the by-election because of the name recognition he's built up as a columnist.

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In Chilliwack, about 100 kilometres east of Vancouver, the advance vote was held at the Twin Rinks Arena. One woman who walked through the arena's bright red doors carrying her young daughter said she voted Liberal because the party seems best suited to create jobs. A husband and wife said they went NDP because they're not satisfied with the Liberals' work on health care.

If the NDP has a stronghold in the riding, it appears to be in Hope, approximately 50 kilometres northeast of Chilliwack. A voting-area breakdown shows Ms. O'Mahony beat Mr. Penner in several neighbourhoods in 2009. In fact, a drive through Hope almost exclusively turns up orange NDP signs.

Ian Newbigging's lawn is ad-free, though he plans to vote Conservative. He lives on a street featuring several NDP signs and says the reason is clear: Many of his neighbours are union members and therefore support the New Democrats.

He recognizes that one more vote for the Conservatives means one less vote for the Liberals. "I don't want the NDP to win," he says bluntly. But he'll take his chances because he says he's grown tired of the headaches from a party that first took office in 2001.

Boston Bar, a community whose name dates back to the gold rush, is an hour north of Hope, on the east bank of the Fraser River. It's surrounded by lush green mountains and a train can be seen chugging along in the distance.

Nancy Carmichael, supervisory voting officer in Boston Bar, says the bowling alley was chosen because it's the most wheelchair-accessible venue in town.

Ms. O'Donnell is all smiles after she casts her ballot. She's well aware of the apparent Liberal-Conservative vote split and, as a New Democrat, couldn't be happier. She says she's tired of being nickel and dimed on health care and hydro.

If Ms. O'Donnell has her way, the Chilliwack-Hope by-election will leave the Liberals in the gutter.

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