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B.C. Premier Christy Clark talks to the media before the May 14 election campaign’s lone televised leaders’ debate. (B.C. Liberal Party)
B.C. Premier Christy Clark talks to the media before the May 14 election campaign’s lone televised leaders’ debate. (B.C. Liberal Party)

Anatomy of a comeback: How Christy Clark beat the odds Add to ...

Six days before British Columbians cast their votes last month, Dimitri Pantazopoulos made a prediction that astonished his colleagues in the Liberal Party’s campaign war room.

As the party’s pollster, he was known for nightly reports that were optimistic but not overly specific. The joke was that he could speak for five minutes and say nothing.

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But this time Rich Coleman, campaign co-chair and veritable godfather of the party, wanted a number.

The answer he received: “Right now, I see 48.”

The room grew quiet, as the many doubters cast steely glances at the 45-year-old Mr. Pantazopoulos. There are 85 seats in B.C., so he had just predicted something they found difficult to believe: a clear majority.

By the eve of the election, their skepticism was keeping him up until midnight, going over his data in an attempt to see where he might have gone wrong.

“I couldn’t find anything,” he recalls. “I was either going to look like a genius or misfire in spectacular fashion.”

There was no misfire. The following night, the leader of the Liberals took the stage at the Sheraton Wall Centre in Vancouver to give an acceptance speech that wasn’t supposed to be.

As the music died, she leaned toward the microphone and said: “Well, that was easy.”

A great roar went up because, throughout the campaign, opinion polls had her well behind the New Democrats of Adrian Dix. After 12 years in office, her party appeared to face certain defeat.

Instead, she one-upped her pollster by taking 49 seats in arguably the greatest political comeback in B.C. history.

How? Good political campaigns have staple ingredients, while strategy – how the staples are used – is a secretive science whose practitioners can be notoriously tight-lipped.

But some of the insiders who know just what went on have agreed to share their insights on the resurrection of Christy Clark.

It is a feat that, as well as being of national significance (it keeps a key ally of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in office), will be studied by political organizers for many years to come.

1. Wise man from the East

The first step on the road to victory came six months before election day, and thousands of kilometres away, in Three Small Rooms, the famed restaurant at Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel.

A quiet refuge for high-profile players, it was perfect for two political leaders to have a discreet rendezvous. In town to visit an ailing friend, Ms. Clark had asked Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty if he were free for coffee.

A month earlier, he had announced that he was leaving his office – she wanted his help in hanging on to hers. He had led four election campaigns and she, having become premier in mid-term, was facing her first.

They talked for 90 minutes, she recalls, and “Dalton gave me three critically important pieces of advice. ‘When you get off that bus every day remember everything is on your shoulders,’ he said. ‘In that moment you have to be perfect in communicating what it is you’re trying to do.’”

He also said to have someone on her bus whose advice she could trust completely and, probably the easiest advice for her to follow, told her: “Christy, you have a great smile. Don’t forget to have a good time, because people can tell if you enjoy talking to them. Smile as much as you can.”

Yet, words of wisdom aren’t all she received from Mr. McGuinty.

The battle squad assembled by Mike McDonald, her campaign director and long-time friend, included Don Guy, the brilliant political strategist behind many come-from-behind McGuinty victories, and Laura Miller who, as deputy chief of staff, had handled communications and strategy for the Ontario premier.

Another veteran of Queen’s Park, Ben Chin, had left broadcast journalism to work for Mr. McGuinty and came west as communications adviser to Ms. Clark.

The confidant for her bus she found closer to home: Brad Bennett, a scion of perhaps B.C.’s most famous political family. His father and grandfather – premiers Bill and W.A.C. Bennett – ran B.C. for more than three decades combined. A successful real-estate developer in the Okanagan Valley, he has been often asked to enter politics, but agreeing to hit the road with Ms. Clark is as close as he has come.

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