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b.c. election

Dennis Clark sets down his coffee to shake the hand that has suddenly been thrust in front of him.

"Hi, I'm Christy Clark and I'm hoping we can count on your support," says the B.C. Premier. Mr. Clark looks slightly embarrassed as four television cameras descend on him. He is not among the dozen or so Liberal supporters that this Tim Hortons restaurant has been stocked with for the Premier's arrival. Luckily for her, however, she's found a fan.

"Dennis Clark," says the Premier, upon learning his name. "I wonder if we're related?"

"We are if you win," he says.

It is here, and in stops just like it, that the B.C. Liberals believe the election will be won. The party is relying on Ms. Clark's selling powers to lead it to victory on May 14. That is why the campaign trail is more important than it's ever been for the long-time governing party. If they don't win the ground war against the New Democrats, they have no hope. Which is why there is so much riding on Ms. Clark's performances along the way.

An Angus Reid poll released Thursday shows that while the Liberals have closed the gap between themselves and the NDP a little, the chasm is still mammoth. The New Democrats' 17-point lead is now down to 14, with less than three weeks left in the campaign.

If Ms. Clark is dejected by the forlorn nature of her mission, she hides it well. In stop after stop, she hits all of her talking points with an impassioned relentlessness: B.C. is at a critical crossroads; we can't leave a pile of debt for future generations; the NDP spend-o-meter keeps going up more every day; people need to stop handing Adrian Dix napkins because he's using the back of them to create his policies. She talks often about her own parents and the values-based upbringing she enjoyed.

As often as it can, the Liberal tour is putting Ms. Clark in industrial settings. In a stop in Comox, on Vancouver Island, she hops on a backhoe. In Sicamous, she stops in at TA Structures, a business that builds temporary housing for construction sites and that is owned by the Shuswap Liberal candidate, Greg Kyllo.

With workers in hard hats and safety glasses surrounding her, Ms. Clark steps up to the podium in a warehouse on the TA Structures site and declares: "This is what a strong economy looks like."

Sally Scales, a 75-year-old former newspaper owner from Salmon Arm, is in the crowd. She has dropped in to see the Premier in person. "There is just something about her that I really like," says Ms. Scales. "She's dynamic and she's always positive. She has a real charisma about her."

Ms. Scales concedes that the Premier is making promises that may never come true – like a debt-free B.C. in 15 years. But, she says, every politician does the same thing. And Ms. Clark, she insists, is not nearly as bad as some.

The Premier's stops in Salmon Arm and Sicamous were no accident. Since 1996, the riding of Shuswap has been represented by Liberal MLA George Abbott. But the popular former cabinet minister has retired, and now Mr. Kyllo finds himself in the fight of his life to carry on the Liberal legacy in the riding. The New Democrats believe, with good reason, that their candidate, Steve Gunner, will win this time. Just down the road in Vernon, the Liberal incumbent, Eric Foster, is also in big trouble. This is why the Premier spent time there this week as well.

It's hard to discern from Ms. Clark's campaign appearances this week how things are going for the Liberals. The crowds have been modest in size, a far cry, in many cases, from the gatherings Gordon Campbell used to attract – which were smaller still than the throngs that used to greet Social Credit premiers such as Bill Vander Zalm and Bill Bennett. Ms. Clark did, however, get a great turnout in Kelowna, where her speech was well received.

On the campaign bus and plane, the Premier maintains an upbeat attitude. Part of it might be a brave face. She is aware that she needs to give her campaign staff something to feed off, to convince them that the doomsayers are wrong and they are going to be part of an historic comeback. She talks about "when we win," and "one of the first things I'm going to do after cabinet gets sworn in." She laughs often and loudly. Not infrequently, she'll saunter to the back of her campaign bus to chat with people who have often been the bane of her existence – journalists.

While Ms. Clark's campaign stops have generally run smoothly, it's hard to see how they add up to victory in the end. It still feels like it's going to take some monumental miscue by the New Democrats to even make this election close. Even the party's supporters seem to sense it.

"I sure don't want to see the NDP get back in," says Dennis Clark, after the TV cameras have gone. "I saw it three times in the 1990s and it wasn't pretty. I know I don't want to see it again. But maybe people need to learn another hard lesson. It's looking like that's how it could end up."