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Punchless Liberals still waiting for their big shot

Heading into the B.C. election, it was generally agreed that if the governing Liberals were going to mount a comeback and win the May 14 vote, they would need to score decisive, week-to-week victories on the campaign trail. Draws would be as good as losses.

If that is the measure, Liberal Leader Christy Clark and her party did not have the opening week for which they were hoping. It wasn't that it was particularly bad; they just didn't get the kind of clear win they needed to start gnawing away at the NDP's lead in the polls. Now Ms. Clark and her team have one less week in which to start making those critical inroads.

The Liberals tried to put their opponents on their heels out of the gate by unearthing comments made by the NDP's candidate in Kelowna-Mission deemed to be racially insensitive.

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But party Leader Adrian Dix had her resignation within two hours and won plaudits for his adroit handling of the matter.

More troublesome for the NDP was news that their provincial secretary has been sending out fundraising letters to members of the B.C. business community identified as only giving to the Liberals. In the letters, Jan O'Brien asks recipients to make a minimum $5,000 contribution to the New Democrats in the interests of fairness. To some, it felt like a strong-armed move by a party about to form government.

While the fundraising tactic does not cast the NDP in the best light, it's unlikely to provide the Liberals with a momentum changer. The issue is most likely to offend people not inclined to support the New Democrats anyway.

Mr. Dix, meantime, received positive reviews last week for announcing he'd freeze ferry fares for two years. Although it was not the most prudent decision from a public-policy standpoint, it was brilliant as far as crass political vote-getters go. Some of the other announcements that Mr. Dix made around education and child poverty were modest and generally difficult to criticize.

For her part, Ms. Clark toured the north and put herself in many industrial settings. The Liberals want her to be pictured in hard hats and safety glasses, regardless of how it may look. It's an image that says jobs, which is the heart of the Liberal electoral strategy.

The Liberals, however, find themselves in a predicament. They largely revealed their policy platform before the campaign started and now have nothing of substance to disclose. The New Democrats, meantime, decided to roll out their agenda in bits and pieces over the first couple of weeks of the contest. Probably the smarter call.

Now, in a bid to nullify the positive publicity Mr. Dix is getting from his pronouncements, the Liberals have been sending ministers to crash his news conferences. Far from helping, it's made the Liberals look desperate. Privately, many Liberal organizers have expressed their disgust with the approach. It's hard to imagine any self-respecting minister abiding by directives from the Liberal war room to engage in such activity.

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So far, Ms. Clark has failed to knock Mr. Dix off his game – although the NDP Leader has had some chippy exchanges with reporters over the party's spending plans. This is something Ms. Clark will undoubtedly try and exploit herself in two hugely important opportunities coming up.

All four main party leaders will engage in their first debate on radio this Friday. Three days later, they'll get together again to do the same on television. These events represent Ms. Clark's best hopes for landing some campaign-altering shots. In debates, you can say something that makes you look dumb and seeds doubt, or let loose with a line that is so smart and spot on that it instantly makes a connection with voters.

For Mr. Dix, the challenge will be to avoid taking the kind of hit that gives the electorate second thoughts. For Ms. Clark, the task is more complicated. If she enters the debates sensing she needs a big, gravity-defying moment, she might overreach and end up portraying herself in a way that is not at all beneficial.

The B.C. election campaign is heading into an important stretch – one that could have a huge bearing on the ultimate outcome.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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