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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 ...

Also part of the inner circle, Mr. Pantazopoulos had served as the Premier’s principal secretary after coming from the federal Conservatives (not unusual for B.C. whose free-enterprise Liberals inherited many conservative-minded backers of the old Social Credit party of the Bennetts).

The outsized presence of Bob Rennie, the high-profile Vancouver condo marketer and international art collector, could also be felt in the war room. In his trademark dark suit and Converse sneakers, he helped to raise millions for the campaign, but offered moral support as well (as the Premier took to the stage on election night, he whispered in her ear: “Just be you.”)

By the time Ms. Clark returned from meeting Mr. McGuinty, the Liberal campaign strategy had begun to take shape. The goal was to persuade an electorate unimpressed by her uneven track record over two years in office that the Premier was better than she was being portrayed.

A month earlier, she’d had a good start with an upbeat party convention, which Mr. Rennie later admitted was critical to an election fundraiser he was planning. Had she bombed, he would have called it off instead of bringing in $2-million.

The convention also helped her attract several prominent candidates, including paralympic gold medalist Michelle Stilwell. Political commentators had suggested that dreadful polling numbers and her often bumpy time in office would scare away credible contenders. Proving them wrong was a sign of her estimable powers of persuasion, which would come in very handy once the race was on. By then they also had a campaign theme, which Mr. Pantazopoulos had left his post as Ms. Clark’s principal secretary to help identify.

“It was important for us to understand what our strengths and vulnerabilities were with voters,” he now says, “but also what the NDP’s strengths and vulnerabilities were – and how we could take advantage of them.”

The polling and focus groups he conducted across the province pointed the Liberals toward the economy: Even though the provincial debt had expanded on their watch, the issue still played to their perceived strength and the underlying weakness of any social democratic party.

2. Paternal inspiration

While Liberal strategists were certain of the election’s key issue, they still didn’t have an over-arching narrative – a campaign message that would connect with voters emotionally.

By late February, Mr. Guy, 48, had arrived from Ontario. About to speak at a “campaign college” for Liberal candidates, Ms. Clark consulted him and Mike McDonald about what to say.

“Say what you want this campaign to be about,” Mr. Guy recalls saying, “because, at the end of the day, what we’re running on is your leadership, your vision and your conviction. We can turn that into the message.”

On Feb. 26, in the same ballroom where she would give her election night victory address, Ms. Clark gave one of her best speeches – without notes, just speaking from her heart. She talked about the opportunity the province had to reap the riches from liquefied natural gas and leave future generations better off. She mentioned her deceased parents, Jim and Mavis, and her middle-class upbringing with three siblings in a modest, three-bedroom home near Oakalla prison in suburban Burnaby.

She told the crowd how her father not only made sure the family home was mortgage-free and all his debts paid off before he died but even pre-paid his funeral expenses. Surrounded by candidates, she had party organizers in the crowd enthralled.

“The speech kind of came out of nowhere and lit the room on fire,” Mr. Guy says. “I remember listening and thinking: ‘That’s it. I think we’ve got it.’”

That message was simple: Don’t spend what you don’t have; don’t burden future generations with debt; leave the world better off for your kids than what you had.

Joined by Don Millar, their resident advertising guru, the Liberal brain trust parsed the speech for talking points and potential slogans, coming up with “Strong economy, secure tomorrow,” the main campaign credo.

They also decided to channel Ms. Clark’s father for a campaign catch phrase: Debt Free B.C. Several were tested in focus groups, but that one “resonated with people as an aspiration,” Mr. Pantazopoulos says. “There’s some skepticism for sure, but at least you’re trying to get there.”

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