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The Globe and Mail

Gary Mason: In B.C. by-election, Clark keeps all her bases covered

For B.C. Premier Christy Clark, the campaign never ends.

On a warm weekday night, she finds herself trolling for votes at Elks Stadium in the heart of this Okanagan city talking to fans of the hometown Rangers of the West Coast baseball league. Despite leading the B.C. Liberal Party to a stunning comeback victory over the NDP in May's general election, Ms. Clark lost her own seat of Vancouver-Point Grey.

Which is why she is here, running in a by-election in Westside-Kelowna, her third campaign in just over two years. The Liberals took the riding in May by more than 10,000 votes, so it is about as safe a seat as the Premier could have chosen. Still, after being the author of an election triumph two months ago that defied all predictions, Ms. Clark is taking nothing for granted.

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A lot is at stake.

The Premier has full control over her party for the first time since winning its leadership in February, 2011. The Liberals effectively owe her, and her dominating performance on the campaign trail, for their shocking majority win two months ago. Still, if she were to lose here, it would invariably raise questions about her future control over the party.

But if the crowd at the baseball game is any indication, Ms. Clark should have no problem rounding home safely.

Everywhere she walks she is hounded for a picture. "I already voted for you," one man sitting in the stands tells her. "You got my vote Christy," a woman says walking by. Ms. Clark wanders into the stands to shake hands and talk to fans who mostly all assure her of their support. When she returns to her seat near the end of the seventh inning, she concedes that she is feeling the effect of a gruelling few months.

"I'm exhausted," she admits.

After a 28-day general election in which Ms. Clark set a punishing pace, she had no time to decompress before interviewing her Liberal MLAs and picking a cabinet. After that, she mapped out the agendas for each ministry. She also had to find a Liberal MLA, preferably in a party stronghold, willing to step aside for her. Then she had to start electioneering all over again.

"It's just been a really intense period of both campaigning and doing foundational work in government," the Premier told The Globe and Mail between innings. "It's draining. So I'm looking forward to hopefully winning this by-election and then taking a bit of breather."

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It is no surprise that Ms. Clark has received such a warm reception since announcing that she was running here. Kelowna was represented by the longest-serving premier in B.C. history – W.A.C. Bennett – and then for more than decade by his son, Bill. The Bennetts very much put this Okanagan city on the map. Ms. Clark believes that her singular focus on the economy appeals to the people here.

"This is the cradle of free enterprise," Ms. Clark said. "We ran on a thriving private sector economy, keeping taxes low and eliminating the debt. There is nowhere in the province where those values are embedded in the bedrock more than Kelowna, the home of W.A.C. Bennett and Bill Bennett. This is where free enterprise began."

That said, many believe the sole reason Ms. Clark is here is the near certainty any free enterprise candidate has of winning a provincial contest. Popular Liberal Ben Stewart took 60 per cent of the vote in May. Some are not happy Mr. Stewart was tapped to fall on his sword for his leader. There could be a backlash in the voting booth, but not enough to rewrite the ending this script is supposed to have.

Eight people are running in what has been, at times, a feisty, even bizarre, affair. One of those is independent candidate Dayleen Van Ryswyck, famously dumped by the NDP on the first day of the provincial campaign over racially tinged comments she once made about First Nations people on a blog. Ms. Van Ryswyck raised eyebrows at an all-candidates meeting when she suggested Ms. Clark would do anything to get votes, including donating her ovaries.

Ms. Clark has been under attack from all sides, but is enough of a veteran campaigner not to get too exercised by it all. It's politics. And the Premier believes she can set herself apart by being positive, not negative. But ask her if this win is in the bag and she flinches.

"You never take an election for granted, and if anyone ever doubted that, then they should go and ask the NDP what happens when you do," she said. "You have to earn every single vote, and I know that better than anyone."

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