When the candidates for former British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell's vacated riding gathered in an aging Vancouver school gymnasium to field questions from constituents last week, Premier Christy Clark was conspicuous by her absence.
As she did throughout the four-week campaign, Ms. Clark turned down the invitation. Some of the 70 or so people who showed up at the Bayview Community School last week considered it a snub.
But if she wins the by-election in Vancouver-Point Grey this coming Wednesday, B.C.'s new Liberal Leader will soon face her critics on the floor of the legislature.
It's a place Ms. Clark has done battle before, and a place where her political opponents are anxious to take her on once again.
"She'll find her legislative groove pretty quickly, she's a very skilled talker," said Hamish Telford, head of the political science department at University of the Fraser Valley. He was referring to Ms. Clark's three-year stint as a talk radio show host before she ran for the top office.
Ms. Clark was first elected to the legislature in 1996 as an Opposition MLA and became deputy premier when the Liberals took power in 2001. She quit the Campbell administration in 2004, saying she wanted to spend more time with her young son.
She earned a reputation in the legislature as a polished, aggressive politician. While in opposition, she was known as a feisty partisan who served in a number of critic portfolios and featured prominently during the daily question period.
"I expect that she'll get into the house and she will engage in full debate," said NDP MLA Jenny Kwan, who sparred with Ms. Clark on many occasions since her own election in 1996, and now expects many more to come.
"I don't underestimate her in that regard and she will be in full form, but that said I would argue British Columbians can now see through that."
But Ms. Clark should not expect a coronation, Dr. Telford said, noting the opposition New Democrats are running a capable candidate in David Eby, a lawyer who has established his own public profile as former executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
Mr. Eby acknowledged it's a huge challenge going up against the Liberal Leader and her well-financed campaign.
"She's Premier, she has a lot of power in the media, she has a lot of visibility and so at the highest levels I think she's got a huge advantage," he said, noting that's why his strategy is aimed at grassroots support.
"For us at this stage, success looks like a strong turnout of NDP voters and a strong message sent to Christy Clark."
Françoise Raunet of the Greens and Danielle Alie with the BC First Party are also running for the seat, along with two independents. Despite a brand new leader in former federal Tory John Cummins, the B.C. Conservatives are sitting this one out.
Ms. Clark bested her cabinet rivals last February in the third-round of balloting for the B.C. Liberal leadership, but the upcoming vote will be the public's first opportunity to weigh in.
It's a race that proved tight for Mr. Campbell in 2009, when he won by a 10-per-cent margin over his NDP challenger.
Ms. Clark earned the wrath of some for skipping the all-candidates debate to instead host her own telephone town hall, with some at the debate calling her "insular," "entitled" and "stage-managed."
Teachers have called her worse.
As education minister, Ms. Clark earned the wrath of teachers, who say the system became chronically underfunded under the Liberals, starting with her tenure. Teachers are among public interest groups who say they'll hold her to account once she's back on the floor.
"We hope that she has learned to listen," said Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, noting Ms. Clark made that promise when she asked the B.C. Liberals to hand her the reins.
Ms. Kwan isn't convinced. She said she'll never forget a session with Ms. Clark about 10 years ago. After Ms. Kwan stopped mid-sentence and became visibly emotional while reading a letter from schoolchildren describing how cuts were affecting them, Ms. Clark picked up the debate.
"She said something to the effect that I should be given an Academy Award for my performance," Ms. Kwan said. "I couldn't believe it, I was in a state of shock."
But Ms. Clark has said she's grown since her first stint in the legislature and she said she's ready to get back in the game.
"It's where politics happen in the province at its purest and there's a lot of theatre involved," Ms. Clark said. "But sometimes that's fun, too, so I'm looking forward to it."
Her Liberal colleagues will be welcoming back a boss who hasn't sat in the legislature for 6.5 years, and among them there's only one who supported her bid for the leadership. In the brief months since taking office, she's inherited some contentious issues including the hated HST.
That's where NDP Leader Adrian Dix, newly elected himself, may show he's a formidable match, Dr. Telford said.
"Where he might have an advantage is being on top of the files and issues, particularly with the minutiae of the details on some of these files may escape her," he said.
"That's the only risk she really runs."
The Canadian Press