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British Columbia B.C. Liberals gain candidate who ran for Conservatives in by-election

Conservative candidate John Martin steps to the podium to concede to NDP candidate Gwen O'Mahony at his campaign office in Chilliwack, B.C., on April 19, 2012.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. Conservative candidate in the Chilliwack-Hope by-election five months ago has defected to the B.C. Liberal party.

John Martin, who placed third in the by-election in April, says he will seek the B.C. Liberal nomination for the May 2013 general election in the seat vacated by John Les, the B.C. Liberal MLA who is not running again.

The announcement comes on the eve of a crucial vote on the Conservative party leadership.

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During the by-election, Mr. Martin ran against the B.C. Liberal record, attacking their "catch and release" justice system and promising to fight to scrap the carbon tax.

Premier Christy Clark said the efforts to bring Mr. Martin over to her party began the day after the by-election in April. He was assured that it was okay to bring dissenting views with him.

She told reporters in a telephone interview she was not concerned about her new recruit's past attacks on her and her party.

"You have to be prepared to kiss and make up in politics. I think we all say things when we are trying to get elected, fair enough," Ms. Clark said. "And we all have criticisms, fair enough. But there is something much bigger at stake here – and John Martin deserves a lot of credit for having recognized it – and that is the fate of our province."

At a news conference in Chilliwack, Mr. Martin said he has torn up his B.C. Conservative party card, saying it time to unite the free enterprise vote in B.C.

"There is more that unites us than divides us," he said.

On Saturday, the B.C. Conservatives will announce the results of a vote on John Cummins' leadership.

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In a statement Friday, Mr. Cummins said the news of the defection broke while his party was hosting a seminar for 23 potential candidates. "We intend to field a strong roster of candidates in every corner of the province," his statement read. "With regards to John Martin, who took our party to a third-place finish in last year's Chilliwack-Hope by-election, we wish him well in the future."

Mr. Martin sidestepped questions about the B.C. Conservative leadership controversy, saying he has not taken sides in the debate over Mr. Cummins' leadership.

He said decided to take a second look at the B.C. Liberals in the wake of the demoralizing by-election results. He said he won't recant his fierce campaign attacks on the Liberals, but he will work from the inside to pursue changes.

"I had some major concerns about the government and I still do," he said, adding that he is now convinced the Liberals are the only option for centre-right voters in B.C.

While he was speaking, New Democrats were peppering Twitter with anti-Liberal quotes from Mr. Martin during the by-election campaign. Mr. Martin, in response to questions from reporters, joked about ways to make eating crow taste good.

He said he ran for the B.C. Conservatives last spring because he thought they were going to displace the B.C. Liberals as the best party to take on the New Democrats. Instead, voters in Chilliwack-Hope elected the NDP's Gwen O'Mahony, while B.C. Liberal candidate Laurie Throness came in second.

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"I was wrong. The Conservatives, they have lost support," Mr. Martin said, "and we see the Liberals on the rebound."

An Ipsos Reid poll this week showed the B.C. NDP still commanding a strong lead – 49 per cent – while the B.C. Liberals have climbed up to 32 per cent. Support for the B.C. Conservatives has dropped to 12 per cent. Polls earlier this year had the two centre-right parties roughly tied in support.

The defection is important to the B.C. Liberal Party, a coalition that has been bleeding support to the upstart Conservatives. Earlier this year, longtime Liberal MLA John van Dongen quit the party to join the Conservatives, but the growth under Mr. Cummins appears to have stalled.

The Liberals have turned their upcoming convention into an open "free enterprise" event, hoping to attract more disaffected conservatives.

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