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Say what you will about Christy Clark, she’s still a brilliant campaigner

It's just after 6:30 p.m. when Christy Clark emerges from a hallway and walks into a crammed room in the back of the local hockey arena.

Wearing jeans and a short, red blazer, the BC Liberal Leader slowly works her way through a crowd of about a hundred people that has begun chanting her name: "Chris-ty, Chris-ty, Chris-ty." She is beaming, dishing out hugs and handshakes as she makes her way to a small stage. In minutes, The Christy Clark Show will begin, which will include segments devoted to Donald Trump, her Scottish ancestors, the evils of John Horgan and the NDP and, of course, jobs.

Everything comes back to jobs.

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This is where the brash, provocative and polarizing Liberal Leader stole the 2013 election from the grasp of the NDP; in small gatherings like this one, where she is so adept at packaging her central campaign theme in a 10- to 15-minute presentation that is all exuberance, mixed with appropriate doses of anti-NDP vitriol, always dispensed with her trademark smile, which she wears from dusk until dawn. It looks exhausting. But it is here where she hopes to win the 2017 election as well.

Say what you will about Ms. Clark and the manner in which she has governed B.C. for the past six years, but one thing is undeniable: The woman is a brilliant campaigner. She is because she loves it; she feeds off the attention, the adulation. She is not a superb orator, but out here, you don't have to be. On the campaign stage, the modern politician speaks in sound bites (unless he's Barack Obama). Before the race begins, the war room helps craft a narrative; it is the leader's job to passionately tell that story at stops from Koksilah to Princeton. Sometimes, events will precipitate a change in the plot line. Ms. Clark is very good at making mid-campaign alterations, as she has done in this one.

When the U.S. administration of Donald Trump announced softwood-lumber duties of up to 24 per cent, the Liberals saw this as an opportunity to make this campaign about leadership and who is best able to stand up to the Americans. Even though it is far-fetched to imagine a provincial politician rattling the cages of a U.S. president, Ms. Clark has done an effective job of selling the notion that only she has what it takes to stand up to U.S. protectionism, and the loud-mouthed bully who is Mr. Trump.

While it is doubtful that Ms. Clark's words, or her threatened tariff on U.S. thermal-coal exports, are going to make the Americans change course on trade policy, it has provided the Liberal Leader with a rich vein to tap.

"They've already come after our aluminum, our softwood, they're taking aim at our dairy industry," Ms. Clark tells her audience, in stop after stop. "What's next? Our fruit? Our wine? Our tech sector? We don't know how far they intend to go, but I know one thing: I'm going to stand up to this and protect jobs in this province. I'm not going to sit back and allow this to happen."

The crowds eat it up.

These campaign stops are important for a couple of reasons. They are covered by local media, which then relay the leader's central message to area residents. The more passionate you are, the more convincing you come across on television and in interviews. But these rallies have another vital purpose: They get party supporters charged up, and more committed to working to help the local Liberal candidate get elected. It generates enthusiasm, makes the election seem more crucial and worth fighting for. A poor stump speech can drain the energy and passion of your workers.

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Normally, a government with the kind of enviable job creation and economic-growth record the Liberals have to run on wouldn't be in the kind of dogfight they find themselves. But a dogfight they are in. It has made this campaign one of the nastiest and mean-spirited witnessed in B.C. in some time – and that's saying something. Baseless accusations have been flung by all camps. Bald-faced lies have been told too. It is the disturbing nature of our politics, today. It is not for the faint of heart, for sure.

Ms. Clark campaigns against a checkered record as Premier. While she has certainly shown steady, dependable leadership when it comes to managing the province's finances (five balanced budgets), the Liberal Leader is dogged by the perception she is beholden to her rich patrons and to groups like developers that have flooded Liberal party coffers with millions in donations. The campaign finance laws in the province are a disgrace and international embarrassment, yet she has refused to do anything about it. She has committed to have a panel investigate this area if re-elected but won't say what she thinks should be done.

Many were dumbfounded when it was revealed Ms. Clark was receiving an extra salary of $50,000 a year from her party, from donation money she helped raise. After The New York Times, no less, wrote about it a year after it was first reported, she announced she would no longer be accepting it. There has been other dubious conduct. Earlier this year, she accused the NDP of hacking into her party's computers with no evidence. She was eventually forced to apologize. On the policy front, the Liberals have refused to raise welfare rates frozen for 10 years, which has helped cement the image of an arrogant, cold-hearted administration.

And this is merely a taste of the problems that have beset Ms. Clark during her time in office.

Together they constitute the barnacles all governments attract after being in office a certain length of time. The BC Liberals are no different. They have done things that have infuriated people; the question is, are they infuriated enough to boot them from office.

"How's Kamloops doing tonight?" the Liberal Leader says after grabbing the microphone. "Is everybody having a good time? I know I am."

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If Christy Clark is worried, she sure isn't showing it.

Video: BC Liberal and NDP leaders talk about housing with The Globe
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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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