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British Columbia Christy Clark’s hard-hat tour a promise of fiscal might

David Parkins/The Globe and Mail

Whether she was surrounded by towering construction equipment, touring natural-gas plants or writing her name in wet cement, Christy Clark built the Liberals' election campaign into Hard Hat Tour 2013.

The images were shaped around a single message: This is a Premier who is prepared to build the economy. It took aim at the persistent weakness of the New Democrats – voter distrust around their fiscal record – and cemented the not-the-NDP vote.

In the end, it didn't matter that her slogan, "a debt-free B.C." was built on hope rather than reality, or that the promised balanced budget has yet to be proven. It didn't matter that economists poured cold water on the Liberals' claims about being the better economic stewards.

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The hard hats were the key. Liberal strategist Brad Bennett, who accompanied Ms. Clark on the tour, said his side was always calculating Ms. Clark could turn things around. "It's 80 per cent what you see and 20 per cent what you hear," he said.

Mr. Bennett believes the Liberals' comeback really started with the television debate. Ms. Clark invested the time in preparing for the event, which attracted about 1.4 million viewers.

Adrian Dix, the night before the election, said he hadn't spent much time in rehearsals. And even though he won on content, Ms. Clark looked more like a premier.

"It was an incredibly powerful visual," Mr. Bennett said. "That was very significant."

Mr. Bennett was part of the scenery, too – the scion of the Social Credit dynasty was at Ms. Clark's side throughout the campaign, along with former B.C. Reform Party leader Jack Weisgerber. The Harper Conservatives were notably absent – unimpressed with Ms. Clark's "tough luck" approach to nation building, but former Conservative MP Stockwell Day pitched in.

Together, the three men sent a signal to conservative-minded voters that Ms. Clark had rebuilt the "free enterprise" coalition under the B.C. Liberal party banner.

Ms. Clark also got a boost from John Cummins, the B.C. Conservative Leader. His lacklustre campaign didn't present a credible alternative to the Liberals. Midterm, the Conservatives seemed to be benefiting from voter anger over the imposition of the harmonized sales tax. But when voters walked into the polling booth, they became 10-second Liberals. Mr. Cummins's party pulled less than 5 per cent of the popular vote. And Mr. Cummins placed a distant third in his chosen riding, Langley.

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With the centre-right coalescing just in time, the B.C. NDP was ineffective in holding the centre-left together. The B.C. Greens' Jane Sterk emerged as the most likable of the four leaders in the debate, and her party's strategy to focus on winnable ridings rewarded the Greens with their first seat in the legislature. By refusing to take a position on the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline proposal until halfway through the campaign – despite months of lobbying by environmentalists – the NDP didn't give conservationists a convincing reason to abandon Ms. Sterk.

Mr. Bennett said that inconsistency on pipelines played a terrific foil to the Liberal campaign.

"From the very beginning of the campaign, we wanted to fight on the economy and we stayed on the economy through the entire campaign," he said. The Liberals seized on Mr. Dix's Kinder Morgan opposition to put fear in the hearts of voters about the NDP – a wedge issue around jobs in the energy sector. So the Liberals got to define the ballot-box question: Do you trust the NDP on the economy?

It was a campaign that would have suited the Socred party built by his father Bill Bennett and his grandfather W.A.C. Bennett. The echo of their warnings about the socialist hordes was just beneath the surface of Ms. Clark's campaign speeches. The youngest Bennett said it is still as effective today. "As long as we stay steadfast in our resolve to effect good fiscal management and economy building, we do very well."

The NDP did not see last week's election loss coming. But it had decades to figure out how to mount a counter-message, and failed.

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