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British Columbia Premier Christy Clark fields questions as the premiers gather for an economic summit in Halifax on Friday, November 23, 2012 (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark fields questions as the premiers gather for an economic summit in Halifax on Friday, November 23, 2012

(Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

B.C. POLITICS

Pugnacious Premier Christy Clark shifts into campaign mode Add to ...

It could have been a fundraiser held by the B.C. Liberals in advance of any of the last three provincial elections.

There was prominent Vancouver businessman Peter Brown, a fixture at so many of the party’s fundraising dinners over the years, taking the microphone to warn of the dangers that lurked if the socialist hordes gained power. The last time it happened, he reminded the well-heeled audience made up of representatives from B.C.’s resource sector, it nearly ruined the province.

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“The sons of bitches took our swagger away,” Mr. Brown told the crowd, who had paid $350 each to attend the affair.

It was Mr. Brown’s job to thank Premier Christy Clark for the rousing speech she had delivered minutes earlier. If last month’s B.C. Liberal convention was the unofficial start of the 2013 spring election, Wednesday’s fundraiser was clear evidence that Ms. Clark has officially shifted into campaign mode.

She is now rehearsing the lines that will form the foundation of the stock speech she will deliver across British Columbia over the next few months in advance of her date with destiny on May 14.

The party is also filling its coffers in the hopes that the cash advantage it will doubtless have over the New Democrats can be put to good use. That would include purchasing expensive television time to air what many expect to be harsh attack ads aimed at NDP Leader Adrian Dix. The fundraiser the Liberals held on Thursday raised $175,000.

Campaign director Mike McDonald told me this week that the Liberals had to take out a $6-million loan in 2009 to cover expenses related to the election that year. The party will make the last payment on that loan next week and will move into a surplus position. Mr. McDonald said he expects the Liberals will spend about $6-million between January and the end of the May election – from money raised. The point being: The Liberals have not been in this good shape financially for some time, and a lot of it has to do with the growing belief people have in Ms. Clark.

Still, the Liberals are in certain danger of relinquishing power and they don’t like it one bit. It was clear from Mr. Brown’s comments, and the ones from the Premier that preceded them, that this is now war. And the province’s self-proclaimed free enterprise party seems prepared to do anything to win it.

It’s also clear that the party intends to go back to a familiar tactical game plan to ultimately declare victory.

Ms. Clark gave two speeches this week that stressed her government’s economic bona fides and fiscal discipline. “We cannot borrow now and leave the debt for our kids and grandkids to pay off,” she told a crowd in her old political stomping grounds of suburban Coquitlam. “We have to control our spending.”

She vowed to balance the budget in 2013, a pledge that raised eyebrows a day later when Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced that this year’s deficit had shot up another $328-million. It now stands at nearly $1.5-billion. It would seem the Liberals are going to try to turn the fiscal austerity program they will have to launch to have any hope of balancing the budget next year into some kind of political plus. An illustration, perhaps, of the difference between them and the other guys who don’t feel balancing budgets is important – or so the Liberals want you to believe.

The Premier’s fundraising speech was noisily partisan and laced with the kind of heavy political rhetoric we can expect between now and next May. It was replete with all sorts of scary predictions about the New Democrats.

The NDP, she said, was hiding a plan to put the needs of trade union members before other British Columbians. The NDP had a long history of sounding modest in the run-up to elections but then delivering an expensive and reckless agenda of change once it got in.

“I’m a helluva fighter but I need every one of you at my back,” Ms. Clark appealed to the crowd.

We’ll see how well the Liberals’ strategy of demonizing their opponent works this time around. The party is a fair ways back in the polls, with much of the public’s disenchantment with the government and Ms. Clark’s leadership justified on many levels.

The Premier has huge fiscal challenges facing her. She and her government have serious credibility problems with broad swaths of the electorate. But Ms. Clark is now in campaign mode, which in many ways plays to her strengths. Perhaps that’s why she seems to be enjoying the job so much these days.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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