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The race to re-energize Fredericton starts with face time

Krista Steeves sketches on a bench in Wilmot Park in Fredericton with her son Blair Steeves, 11, on April 17, 2011.

Globe and Mail

After heated criticism recently in the New Brunswick legislature over funding cuts to a women's advocacy group, Premier David Alward and most of his caucus went outside to chat with demonstrators.

That move was a telling reflection of the sort of politics expected here. Federal candidates in this riding are vying for an electorate that has traditionally been informed, engaged and accustomed to speaking to their representatives about the issues.

"The taboo subjects are politics and religion in other parts of the country," said Krista Steeves, who spent more than 20 years in Montreal before returning to her native Fredericton. "Here it's dinner party conversation."

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Fredericton is one of a handful of key battlegrounds in New Brunswick, and holding the seat is critical to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's quest for a majority. On Wednesday evening, Mr. Harper bused through snow and freezing rain to greet a rambunctious rally of more than 700 here. Savaging, as he always does, the possibility of the Liberals forming a government with the support of the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, he claimed "the other guys, they're going to get together, they're going to give each other a mandate. We think you get your mandate from the Canadian people, not from other politicians." The crowd roared.

Yet for all the political engagement of the local electorate, all parties face challenges with Fredericton voters. Elections were held in the fall at the provincial level, and voter fatigue is evident in the capital city. There is also much resentment over the cost to taxpayers of the current campaign in a province facing dire economic problems.

Feeding this sour mood, interviews with numerous residents showed, is the sense that this is something of a Seinfeld election: It's about nothing. Other than the ever-present economic concerns, which are shared across the Maritimes, there's no consensus on the ground of what the race is about or why it's happening.

"I'm not a fan of the Conservative government, yet there's a reality here," said Ms. Steeves, a social worker and mother of one. "We're spending more money, good money after bad."

Marg MacPherson, of tiny Lakeville Corner, argued that the focus should be on job creation instead of "throwing money into this election." Others in the riding said the money would be better used on seniors' housing or reducing taxes on gas and necessities. In Minto, Dawn McEachern said there "aren't a lot of jobs" and complained her welfare cheque hasn't kept pace with living costs.

"They should raise people's cheques up," said the 28-year-old, pointing out that it's hard to pay much attention to politics when daily living is such a stress. "I only get so much each month and I can barely even afford groceries."

Make no mistake: The people of Fredericton still care about their politics. Several postsecondary institutions and a provincial civil service headquartered here help raise the local education level. The small size of the riding - there are about 70,000 voters in the city and nearby communities - means people regularly cross paths with their representatives. And the legislature's presence helps make politics part of the daily discussion.

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"I would call it a good citizenship riding," said former federal politician Bud Bird, the last of three Conservatives who held the seat for a total of 36 years, before Liberal Andy Scott snatched it in 1993. "People care about the province and they care about the country and they care about some of the big issues."

The riding returned to the Tories in the 2008 election and incumbent Keith Ashfield is running again. The Liberals are hoping to win it back, putting up local radio host Randy McKeen.

In the absence of one overriding local issue, the race will probably go to the candidate who can re-energize the disenchanted grassroots.

"You have to be at the doors, you have to talk to people," Mr. Ashfield said. "We live in a democracy and [voting is]one of the cornerstones of our democracy and most people realize that."

Mr. McKeen said he got into the race to give voice to the "Joe Citizen" residents with whom he's connected with for 20 years on his radio show. "My main focus is to try to convince people who say it doesn't matter."

The federal riding had been a solidly Tory seat for decades. But then the provincial election of 1987 resulted in a Liberal sweep, and showed that voting for the other party could be palatable. And the federal Tory massacre of 1993 helped Mr. Scott, who was in the right place at the right time to snatch the seat.

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He then solidified his support through four more elections with dogged retail politics and a populist touch that included freewheeling public discussions on any and all issues.

"Mr. Scott did yeoman work establishing himself as a real constituency MP," said Tom Bateman, chair of political science at St. Thomas University.

The result was that the riding became more a safe seat for Mr. Scott than for his party. And when he chose not to run in 2008, Mr. Ashfield swept to victory with 42.5 per cent of the vote. The Tory finished 11 points ahead of his nearest competitor.

Mr. Ashfield has enjoyed a high profile locally in his rookie federal term, with responsibility for the Canada Revenue Agency, the Atlantic Gateway and the regional economic assistance ministry known as ACOA.

"There's not a funding announcement that he's not present at - but that's his job," said Donald Wright, associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick. "He's worked this riding. I don't think there has been a birthday party he hasn't gone to."

The advantage of incumbency, combined with diminished voter interest, suggests the seat is Mr. Ashfield's to lose.

He is facing a serious challenger in Mr. McKeen, though, whose radio years give him wide local name recognition. And Mr. Ashfield's trump card, arguing that he has delivered for the riding, might not be enough to appeal to voters sick of politics. Especially people feeling gloomy about their pocketbook and their province's and country's fiscal problems.

"Who cares who gets in," sniffed retired Fredericton resident Danny Banks, 63. "We're going to be broke if we vote in the Liberals. We're going to be broke if we vote in the Conservatives."

With a report from John Ibbitson

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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