With their slogans in place, attention was turned to the half-hour TV commercial Mr. McDonald wanted to produce to erase memories of Ms. Clark’s previous shortcomings and present her in a new light. He knew that, as a former radio talk-show host, she was at her best with regular folks discussing everyday life.
Mr. Pantazopolous was not sold on the idea – $100,000-plus was a lot of money and he suspected few viewers would sit through 30 minutes of a politician talking. But he underestimated the creative magic of Mr. Millar, who had filmed Ms. Clark the previous year at a small-town Canada Day celebration where she served pancakes and square-danced with seniors. On the way home, he and his creative partner, Eric Hogan, had gushed about what they had. It would form the basis of the ad; writing a script to fit the pictures and the economic message would be easy.
The commercial aired on April 14 – two days before the campaign kickoff. “We knew the electorate was volatile – the TV special was our reset button, our chance to reintroduce Christy,” says Mr. McDonald, 44. “It was incredibly well received, and we had ... some solid momentum heading into the campaign.”
On the morning the race was to begin, Mr. Dix paid a surprise visit to Vancouver-Point Grey, sending a clear message that he was intent on taking the key riding, which includes the University of British Columbia and neighbouring Kitsilano – and which Ms. Clark had won by only 500 votes in a 2011 by-election after becoming party leader.
A Liberal stronghold it was not, and the war room was irate. “He went to her riding to kick her in the face before she’d even gone to see the lieutenant-governor,” says Neil Sweeney, a senior policy adviser. “It spoke to the arrogance of their campaign.”
And the Liberals had a weapon: controversial comments about aboriginals and francophones an NDP candidate had posted to a blog a few years before.
“We decided to drop the ‘candidate bomb’ ... because of what Dix did when he visited Point Grey,” Mr. Sweeney says. “That was a sign from us to them that we were not going to take this lying down, that they’d better be prepared. I don’t think they ever woke up to that, to be honest.”
Even later, when a Liberal TV ad mentioned his infamous “memo-to-file” imbroglio (in 1999, as chief of staff to NDP premier Glen Clark, he forged a memo to shield his boss from a conflict-of-interest accusation), Mr. Dix was upset at what he considered a personal attack.
“It was naive for the NDP to think we wouldn’t bring it up,” Mr. McDonald argues. “But the memo wasn’t the defining issue of the campaign – it was the economy.”
In any event, as a smiling Christy Clark visited the lieutenant-governor later that day to launch the race, Adrian Dix was having to fire his candidate. The Liberals had taken an early advantage.
3. The problem with polls
The party’s internal numbers were never as grim as those from big-name pollsters such as Ipsos-Reid and Angus Reid. Mr. McDonald says that, even in February, the Liberals were only 10 points behind the NDP – about half the gap others suggested.
Then a memo outlining a cynical strategy to woo ethnic voters was linked to staff in Ms. Clark’s office and cost some momentum coming off the provincial budget released that month, but by April the gap was closing again.
Heading into the election, Mr. Pantazopoulos estimated that the Liberals were down 13 points, not the 19 cited by Ipsos. The plan was to focus on 59 ridings (29 of them considered good bets) – the only ones in which the Liberals did any polling before and during the campaign.
From the beginning, the goal was to put Ms. Clark into as many of those ridings as possible – and into places where she could best discuss jobs and the importance of sound fiscal management. Organizers sought industrial venues where she emerged in hard hat, safety glasses and work boots (a set was custom-ordered to fit perfectly, including coveralls with her name across the front).