It was a defining moment in the campaign, and presented many opportunities: The ad hoc nature of the announcement dovetailed nicely with Liberal criticism of Dix policies as haphazard and ill-conceived. It also undermined Mr. Dix’s contention that he was principled and could be trusted not to make decisions for purely political gain.
Perhaps most important of all, Liberals could say the move showed how little the NDP cared about economic development.
It also showed how little they had learned from the past.
Brad Bennett recalls that, 30 years ago, his Social Credit father was well behind challenger Dave Barrett heading into the backstretch of a campaign. But then the NDP leader announced he would abandon the economic-restraint program his rival had introduced to deal with a recession plaguing the province.
“That was the Kinder moment of 1983,” Mr. Bennett says. “We jumped all over it.”
Four days after the “Kinder Surprise,” party leaders squared off in a radio debate. Within minutes, Mr. Dix realized the ammunition he had handed Ms. Clark.
“She got up inside his chest,” Mr. Guy says, and it seemed to have a lasting impact. “I think he was upset that he got rattled, and consequently he was too hot in the TV debate three days later.”
Don Millar was in charge of preparations for the TV debate, which he viewed as a “positive communications opportunity” for Ms. Clark, a chance to talk directly to voters.
“We form instantaneous judgments about the people with whom we’re dealing; television elevates that,” he says. “You have to be cool. People don’t want to be yelled at in their living rooms.
“At the same time, people can sense a level of sincerity. That’s where Christy scored big points, in the way she connected with, what, 1.4 million viewers.”
Kinder Morgan came up but didn’t dominate the debate, which many commentators felt Mr. Dix narrowly won, based on content, although Ms. Clark looked most like a premier.
“I think there was an expectation that perhaps she wouldn’t be that swift and would be eaten alive by this guy who was a policy wonk. And she not only held her own, she gained ground,” Mr. Pantazopoulos says.
“In terms of male voters 55 and older, our support soared,” Mr. McDonald recalls. “Sure, the NDP had us in terms of voters 16 to 34, but that didn’t reflect turnout reality. Typically, a lot of people in that age group don’t vote.”
Even women, who had been an elusive target for Ms. Clark, started moving her way. Internal polling showed a rise of seven points among women and 10 points for voters 55 and older.
5. The tide turns
Heading into the weekend following the TV debate, the war room was a jumble of excited energy. The Liberals figured 30 of their target seats were so solid, they didn’t bother tracking them any longer, and focused on the remaining 29. They, too, seemed promising, but Mr. McDonald worried that public polls still showed the party well behind.
He even considered joining the campaign tour himself “to demonstrate how we could win,” and prepared by drafting notes. Under the heading “NDP mistakes,” he wrote: “Running a strategy to impress elites – media, business, labour but not really speaking to voters,” and “Not touring. Bubble wrap. He’s not tested. Lulled into complacency by poll numbers.”
Next, the Liberals unveiled their version of an advertisement that has been used in U.S. elections to portray a rival as indecisive and untrustworthy.
The 30-second spot shows Mr. Dix’s head atop a weathervane that changes direction with each blast of wind as a storm erupts in the background. The message appears only at the end: “weak leadership, weak economy.”
“We went into focus groups with the ad and the people were really intrigued,” Don Millar says. “They found it very entertaining and thought-provoking. There were no words which allowed people to crystallize their own thoughts – way more powerful than telling them what to think.”
Eric Hogan saw how the focus group reacted and declared: “This is a knockout punch.”