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(David Parkins For The Globe and Mail)
(David Parkins For The Globe and Mail)

DISPATCH

Liberals’ best hope: That NDP juggernaut skids out of control Add to ...

B.C. Liberal campaign director Mike McDonald, in his regular updates to party activists, searches for the good news to reassure his flock that the party is on track for victory.

On a week like the past one, he had to dig deep.

The week started with Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger calling the B.C. Conservatives “unmitigated morons” and “scum.” This didn’t help efforts to bring conservatives back to the coalition party.

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Then a leak of a breathtakingly cynical plan to woo ethnic voters revealed that the Premier’s Office had worked on a plan to tap into government resources for the party’s benefit.

It was too much for Premier Christy Clark’s caucus – several MLAs publicly demanded that heads role. The Premier finally dumped a senior aide, but that act is unlikely to satisfy those in her party who continue to question whether she can lead the Liberals into the May 14 election.

With all that as a backdrop, Mr. McDonald’s recommended talking points focused on the party’s latest awesome candidate nominations. He maintains that all the positive energy he sees – somehow missed by the pundits – “will manifest itself in votes, support and seats.”

That, increasingly, looks like wishful thinking. Some in the party still think a change of leadership could make a difference – with about six weeks until the campaign begins.

But the prospect of losing power after 12 years does, understandably, have the Liberals spooked. Poll analyst Eric Grenier puts the odds of the NDP winning the election at a little more than 95 per cent right now.

The Premier’s jobs plan was supposed to turn things around. Then, there was the Throne Speech and the budget last month. With the opportunities for manufacturing a “quick win” disappearing, there is one other thing the Liberals are hoping for: A big stumble by the New Democratic Party opposition.

It can happen. It did in the 1983 provincial election, when the governing Social Credit party started the campaign 10 points behind the NDP. On the day before the vote, the Vancouver Sun carried this headline: “It looks like an NDP win, experts say.”

But a fortuitous moment in front of a television camera earlier in the campaign changed the outcome for Premier Bill Bennett and his Socreds.

“We got off to a rocky start,” recalled Socred campaign manager Jerry Lampert in a recent interview. The premier had the flu and wasn’t performing well. Their campaign was failing to connect with voters.

“Things were not good and our polling indicated not much was happening.”

But the stars aligned in his favour. The front-runner, NDP leader Dave Barrett, was at a party rally where he suggested he would tear up the Socred government’s restraint package. The news barely created a ripple – at first. But the next day, Mr. Bennett was handed a unique opportunity to get in front of it.

“It just happened at the time BCTV had purchased the first satellite truck, and it just happened to be in the same area where Bennett was campaigning,” Mr. Lampert said.

In his biography of the Socred premier, Tough Guy, Allen Garr recounted how BCTV’s news desk managed to contact their reporter Clem Chapple in Invermere – by persuading someone at City Hall to search for him on the street. Mr. Chapple then persuaded Mr. Bennett’s handlers to wake the groggy premier and get him to appear on their newscast, live, at noon. “Bennett put on his best performance of the campaign,” wrote Mr. Garr. He “poured it on with all the energy of a man who has been born again.”

Thirty years later, Mr. Lampert still remembers watching the party’s internal polling measure the results. “From that point on, the whole campaign turned around. We could see it in our daily tracking, and that was the election.”

The Socreds didn’t just hang on to power – they ended up with more seats than before, and boosted their share of the popular vote.

Today’s B.C. Liberals can hope the NDP will trip up and will no doubt do their best to make that happen. But it’s not much of a campaign strategy.

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