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(David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)
(David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)

B.C. Dispatch

With Clark singed by close vote, Grits may feel election is playing with fire Add to ...

The MLA-elect for Vancouver-Point Grey is heading for Penticton to get 1,000 B.C. Liberal Party members pumped up for an early provincial election.

It could be a tough sell.

Premier Christy Clark first had to win her seat in Wednesday's by-election, and she did, but it was no romp. Despite the party's best efforts, Ms. Clark emerged with scant evidence it is ready for a showdown against Adrian Dix's New Democratic Party.

She is the new face of the BC Liberal Party, yet the preliminary vote count shows she couldn't quite hold the support that former premier Gordon Campbell won here in 2009.

She branded New Democratic Party candidate David Eby an extremist, yet the NDP won a higher share of the vote than it did in that last contest.

Party members who are gathering for the B.C. Liberal convention this weekend were set for an upbeat pre-election launch party. Before the polls closed on Wednesday, Energy Minister Rich Coleman - one of the party's legendary organizers - said the focus of the gathering was to celebrate "that we're here, coming back, coming together as a team."

The party will unveil its election-readiness team in Penticton, and Ms. Clark scoffed at the suggestion that her close call might take the wind out of her sails, noting that she is the first member of a government in 30 years to win a by-election in the province.

"Are you kidding me? The fact that the government won the first by-election in 30 years, I am delighted with the results." She acknowledged it was risky to run in what she calls a swing riding, blamed the furor over the harmonized sales tax for part of her troubles, and professed to be perfectly content with a margin of 600 votes.

But it wasn't a confidence-building exercise, as Liberals watched the results trickle in on Wednesday night frequently giving the lead to Mr. Eby, an untested candidate in a riding that has voted Liberal since 1996. It wasn't until the two dozen polls were counted that Ms. Clark could breathe easy.

Ms. Clark ran for her party's leadership in February promising change, and, above all, electability. The governing party of almost a decade, the B.C. Liberals last fall looked destined for a turn in opposition, so they gave Ms. Clark a mandate to chart a new direction.

But the one part of her plan that has caused the most consternation within her caucus is her steady push for an early election. That still could come as early as this fall, but she might face some questions this weekend about whether the party, which could barely secure a seat for its leader, has a winning strategy put together.

Ms. Clark told reporters on Thursday the new direction she is taking has now been tested and approved by voters in Vancouver-Point Grey. "They decided they would send me into the legislature, I think, with an endorsement that some of the changes we are making are on the right track."

Her campaign also gives some idea of what the next provincial election will look like, whenever it comes. Ms. Clark has positioned herself as a moderate running against a "hard left" NDP under Mr. Dix. She has kept up a steady stream of populist announcements - raising the minimum wage, taking on those rate-gouging Crown corporations, even working a shift at a diner to connect with the public.

But the by-election exposed some cracks in that fresh-faced, positive image. In addition to attacking her opponent, she ducked candidates' debates. Ms. Clark made no apologies for those tactics, suggesting the next round will have more of the same.

The NDP also tilted its hand. Mr. Dix threw himself into the campaign on behalf of Mr. Eby. Fresh off his own leadership contest, Mr. Dix was out door-knocking, and sent in his own team to try to knock off the Premier. He did it because an NDP victory would have been a huge coup, but he was also road-testing a theory.

The NDP has long husbanded its resources in campaigns, targeting swing ridings while largely ignoring those deemed to be unwinnable.

Long before the leadership contest began, Mr. Dix was travelling around the province trying to build up the party's campaign machinery in ridings where the Liberals dominate - in the Northeast, the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan. As in Vancouver-Point Grey, he wants to contest those ridings seriously. And he would not rule out negative campaigning in the next election either.

With the by-election preliminaries out of the way, both parties are gearing up for a bare-knuckle brawl.

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