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Former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts plans to campaign in ridings across the city, and observers expect her clout to help the Tory case

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

Call it the Dianne Watts effect – the popular view that the former Surrey mayor will use her influence to tilt the scales for the Conservatives this fall throughout one of British Columbia's most lively battleground cities.

British Columbia's second-largest city – which is growing by about 1,000 new residents a month – had Ms. Watts as mayor for nine years until she stepped down ahead of November's municipal election.

Now Ms. Watts is ready to spend the political capital she earned as mayor by campaigning in ridings across the city, not just her own. "This is the Conservative team and so I think it's incumbent upon all of us to help each other," she said in an interview.

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She left Surrey First, a party she created, in sufficiently good shape to win every council seat and the mayoralty in November's municipal election.

Now the articulate Ms. Watts, who was once touted as ex-premier Gordon Campbell's successor until she decided she was more interested in governing Surrey, has been acclaimed to the Tory nomination in South Surrey-White Rock. The Tories won the riding then known as South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale with 54 per cent of the vote over the NDP in 2011.

Although Ms. Watts plays down her impact, observers expect she will use her local clout to make the Tory case across Surrey this fall.

"[Surrey] has some history of electoral movement – different political parties have had success in different eras," says Patrick Smith, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University. "[Ms. Watts] was highly popular in Surrey so she has this real potential to have an impact on these local races."

Ms. Watts joined the federal Tory cause after what she has described as months of reflection in which she says she came to realize Stephen Harper was best equipped to lead Canada in troubled global times.

Now, she is on-message. "Frankly, I don't think there's any other choice than a Conservative government," she said in the interview, declaring that the challenges of extremism and economic management demand Mr. Harper as prime minister.

As for a Watts effect? "I've always worked collectively with people as the mayor and I certainly will work collectively as a team in Surrey, and if there's anywhere else that I can assist, I am absolutely open to that, and I absolutely will do that."

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British Columbia is largely Tory country. The party won 21 of 36 B.C. seats in 2011. But Surrey is among a few areas – Vancouver and some neighbouring cities and southern Vancouver Island are others – where all three major parties have a shot.

As it is now, the NDP has two of four Surrey-area seats and the Conservatives have two. The NDP won Newton North Delta by 903 votes over the Liberals. The NDP came second in two Conservative seats. The Conservatives came second in the other NDP seat.

The head of the Surrey Board of Trade, which worked closely with Ms. Watts during her time as mayor, says her organization has been non-partisan and speaking to all parties about concerns that include support for the manufacturing sector, decreasing internal trade barriers and federal funding for transit projects.

Still, Anita Huberman concedes Ms. Watts will have an impact beyond her riding.

"She'll be influential for sure. She has been our mayor for nine years. She has built up a brand for herself in terms of what she can accomplish, leveraging contacts, being very leadership-oriented in terms of idea development and implementing those ideas," she said. "Because of her profile and brand, she will be influential for her party."

The Watts era included the creation of big pieces in a new downtown core for the city – a large central library, and a slick new city hall. She also pushed back at the attitude that made Surrey the butt of jokes, bolstering Surrey pride.

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It's a little less clear how much help Ms. Watts can expect from her Surrey First party. Over all, the party will not endorse federal candidates, but party members will be free to support whomever they choose.

Ms. Watts's mayoral successor and close associate, Linda Hepner, says she will "absolutely" do whatever she can do to help Ms. Watts. "She would be a great spokesperson for us in Ottawa," she said.

The NDP and Liberals are skeptical about a Watts effect.

NDP MP Jinny Sims expects Ms. Watts will risk a backlash if she spends too much time outside the riding she wants to win.

Liberal Sukh Dhaliwal, a former MP who lost to Ms. Sims in 2011 and is running again, says he expects voters will pay more attention to the federal leaders than to Ms. Watts.

That said, he pays tribute to Ms. Watts: "I have a lot of respect for her."

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