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david parkins The Globe and Mail

Dazzling or dour? Serious versus smiley?

These are the choices, as framed by Adrian Dix, in the next B.C. election.

Mr. Dix was elected leader of the B.C. New Democratic Party on Sunday night, and the Monday morning news cycle carried a theme: The NDP had chosen a stern, serious, hard-left policy wonk to take on the B.C. Liberal's new leader, the ever-smiling, populist hockey mom Christy Clark.

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In seeking to combat the "dour Stalinist" label, Mr. Dix painted his rival as an intellectual lightweight. The clear choice for voters would be a candidate of substance and serious ideas - that's him - and Ms. Clark, who is, well, the Jersey Girl who posed in a Canucks hockey shirt last week.

Of all the candidates for the Liberal leadership, he said he'd hoped to face Ms. Clark "because the contrast is strong between an approach to politics based on substance and serious ideas … " Mr. Dix didn't supply the opposite but left it hanging for others to fill in the blank. "It's not about me putting on a Canucks shirt.… It's about us taking a serious approach to serious issues."

It's not the first time Ms. Clark has been characterized as lacking in substance, but it's a stratagem that Mr. Dix should apply with caution. Dismissing your female opponent as just a pretty face is a tactic that could backfire with a key block of voters: women.

The B.C. NDP has enjoyed a solid advantage among women voters over the B.C. Liberals. A disproportionate share didn't like the former premier, Gordon Campbell. In part it was policy, but there was something more to it, borne out by the fact that several strong female cabinet ministers quit politics under Mr. Campbell's leadership.

Now the New Democrats have dumped their female leader, Carole James, and the Liberals have a leader who is bringing back disaffected Liberal voters, including women, with her centrist, moderate, "family first" promises. (The last Angus Reid poll with Mr. Campbell had the Liberals at 26 per cent support, decided or leaning. In their first poll with Ms. Clark, the B.C. Liberals were up 12 percentage points.)

Pollster Kyle Braid of Ipsos Reid says the Liberals don't automatically close the gender gap just because they have selected a woman leader. "The whole concept that women politicians do better with women is not necessarily borne out," he said. "You'll continue to see a gender gap with women voters for the B.C. Liberals - it's about the parties and their positions."

But Ms. Clark has been busy reshaping those policies and positions, tackling some of the issues that hurt her party with women voters. One of her first acts in office was to raise the minimum wage, and she has refused to accept 50-per-cent rate hikes as proposed by BC Hydro. She has captured some of the NDP's high ground when it comes to reducing the tax burden on families.

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With the legislature session beginning next week, Mr. Dix will have a chance to make a fresh impression on voters. There are any number of issues where he can take on the Clark government without getting personal.

The harmonized sales tax is one. The new NDP Leader has promised to be front and centre in the referendum on the tax, pushing for its removal. Here, he is onside with women voters, who are more strongly opposed to the tax than men.

"Whenever we talked to residents about the HST there would be a massive outcry from women," said pollster Mario Canseco of Angus Reid Public Opinion. It hurt the Liberals, but Mr. Canseco noted the gender gap between the NDP and the Liberals has diminished under Ms. Clark even though she supports the tax.

"Once you took Campbell out of the equation, the Liberal base has returned," he said.

The erosion of the base under Mr. Campbell was matched by an equal loss of support for the NDP. In the 2009 election, the Liberals reeled in 93,000 fewer votes than they did in 2005. The NDP lost a similar share, down more than 81,000 voters. Turnout overall was barely over 50 per cent, with 1.4-million eligible voters staying home.

So Mr. Dix can't afford to alienate his party's existing supporters, plus he needs to bring back New Democrats who stayed home on voting day in 2009, just as Ms. Clark appears to be rounding up her flock. And even that would not be enough for the NDP to win the next election.

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Mr. Dix promised his party he can win by reaching out to disenchanted voters. Young and low-income voters - people who generally gravitate toward the left-of-centre spectrum - are under-represented at the polls. He'll craft a platform that aims to inspire those voters, but in doing so he may excite his opponents to head to the polls too.

That's not to say that getting voters worked up is a bad thing: The coming campaign, with two new, dynamic leaders promising sharply defined choices, is a great opportunity to reverse the trend of diminishing voter participation.

"What I'm really looking forward to, looking at the next campaign," said Mr. Canseco, "is we'll have two well-spoken leaders." However they mobilize their supporters, Mr. Dix and Ms. Clark won't be boring.

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