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Untested leaders try to set tone on Day 1 of B.C. election campaign Add to ...

Two years after the BC Liberals crowned Christy Clark as Premier of British Columbia, a change that was supposed to restore the party’s flagging fortunes, Ms. Clark has launched the election campaign that gives B.C. voters their first chance to weigh in on her leadership.

But no sooner had Ms. Clark stepped out of Government House in Victoria to formally launch the 28-day campaign, than opposition leader Adrian Dix was in Ms. Clark’s own backyard – kicking off the NDP campaign in the Liberal Leader’s Vancouver-Point Grey riding. The tactical move underlined Mr. Dix’s oft-stated promise to fight for every seat in the province, denying Liberals shelter in ridings thought to be strongholds. It also sets the tone for a campaign that is expected to focus heavily on the two untested leaders.

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Ms. Clark begins the uphill climb to the May 14 election trailing Mr. Dix and his B.C. New Democrats by 17 percentage points, according to the latest Angus Reid survey. The governing party is seeking to hold onto power for a fourth consecutive term by bringing back disaffected voters who walked away after the ill-fated introduction of the harmonized sales tax nearly three years ago. And the Liberal Leader made clear on Day 1 of her re-election campaign that a change in government would put jobs and the economy at risk.

“This election is about a very stark choice,” she said, speaking to reporters after visiting Government House. Ms. Clark appealed to voters to ignore the consensus that her party is in trouble. “It’s not a decision for pollsters,” she said. “It’s a decision for citizens to make. … We’ll see on May 14 what people think about it.”

It is a campaign that will shape the future of energy development in Western Canada, with two major pipeline proposals in the works that would bring Alberta crude oil to the coast for export. The final decision from B.C. – green light or no – will be left to the incoming government.

But the Liberals’ main theme is the promise of a “debt-free B.C.” – the slogan emblazoned on the side of her campaign bus. It’s a pledge that hinges upon the creation of a new liquefied natural gas industry that would, if it moves forward, begin to contribute to the provincial coffers in 2017. The NDP has indicated support for LNG, but Ms. Clark maintains the party’s policies would kill the industry before a spade is stuck in the ground.

For the New Democrats, who have not won an election since 1996, the campaign is about maintaining a carefully constructed rebranding effort – years in the making – that has presented a more moderate and pragmatic image than the NDP government of the 1990s.

Mr. Dix began his campaign declaring his rivals “good people” and promising “a thoughtful, competent” government – twin threads embodying the positive, pragmatic approach he has pitched to voters.

“I think we need a government in British Columbia that respects all of the people of the province – those that vote for it and those that don’t.” He promised a government about “governing, not campaigning” – a subtle shot at Ms. Clark, who has been accused of being more intent on hustling votes than making policy.

Since he took over as Leader of the NDP, Mr. Dix has enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls and has been able to stand back and allow the spotlight to fall on a string of difficulties plaguing his Liberal rivals. But for the next four weeks, his party will have to withstand closer scrutiny.

Just minutes before the campaign was officially launched, the Liberals highlighted incendiary comments about First Nations and francophones made online by the NDP’s candidate for Kelowna-Mission. The first events of the NDP campaign were overshadowed as Mr. Dix was forced to dump Dayleen Van Ryswyk. But the incident underscored what Mr. Dix has been saying for some time – that the race will be tighter than it is right now.

In the 2009 provincial election, voters expressed a collective yawn about their choices. It was a campaign dominated by the same two parties, led by the same two leaders as in 2005. Both parties earned the same share of the vote as the last time, and both got fewer people out to the polls compared to the previous election.

But each party now has a new face at its helm, in Mr. Dix and Ms. Clark. Whatever the outcome of the 2013 campaign, one thing is certain: This will not be the same old race.

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