Depending on who you believe, B.C. Liberal leadership front-runner Christy Clark is either the party's best hope for beating the New Democratic Party in the next election or a latter-day version of Bill Vander Zalm who will destroy the free enterprise coalition that her party embodies.
Whether we get the chance to see which of those two theories holds true will be known later today, when party members vote on who will replace long-time party leader Gordon Campbell. But from the outset of the race, Ms. Clark has vouched front-runner status.
Yet, there remains enormous nervousness among Liberals about her candidacy.
Ms. Clark's Liberal roots run deep. Her school-teacher father Jim was an unsuccessful Liberal candidate in the 1960s and '70s. She worked on federal Liberal campaigns. She toured the province in 1991 with her now-campaign manager Mike McDonald, trying to sign up enough candidates to give the party status in a televised leaders' debate in that year's general election.
The pair succeeded, leader Gordon Wilson gave a smash performance in the debate and the party went from zero seats to 17 and official Opposition status.
Ms. Clark was herself elected to office in 1996, was a pit bull in Opposition, and was rewarded for her ferociousness by Gordon Campbell when the Liberals formed government in 2001. She was named deputy premier and education minister. She eventually left government in 2005 and became a popular talk show radio host.
What has been odd, is how Ms. Clark has tried to fashion herself in this race as an outsider, despite her deep connections to the party and government. To some degree it's been a tactic designed to distance herself from some of the more unpopular decisions the Liberals made while she was spending time honing her listening skills in radio.
But Ms. Clark's approach has offended many of her former caucus colleagues, who feel she has betrayed them by effectively running against the government's record.
That is perhaps one of the reasons why, despite all the polls that suggest she is going to win today, she only received the endorsement of one member of the current Liberal caucus. And that person is an unknown backbencher. The two other candidates viewed as having the best chance of upsetting Ms. Clark today – Kevin Falcon and George Abbott – divvied up the rest of the caucus and cabinet members pretty much equally.
The lack of caucus support for Ms. Clark's candidacy was so telling she had no choice but to dream up a strategic response to it: Her campaign was not about seeking support from "insiders." Rather it was about opening up the party and government to "the people."
Being branded "insiders" certainly did little to help Ms. Clark endear herself to already-offended Liberal caucus members, many of whom she once fought alongside in the government trenches. Some of her former colleagues were even more galled by Ms. Clark's contention that hers was not a campaign of insiders yet she had the biggest Liberal insider of them all – strategist Patrick Kinsella – working for her.
All of this is to say that should she win, Ms. Clark has a massive job in front of her in uniting her caucus. There are also those on the right of the party who are deeply suspicious of her federal Liberal connections. Some contend that her ascension to the Liberal throne could cause a major fissure in the party, with those on the right breaking off to give new wings to a dormant provincial Conservative Party.
But Ms. Clark is far too smart and politically pragmatic to allow that to happen. One of the first things she will likely do if she wins is appoint the party's right-wing standard bearer, Kevin Falcon, the next finance minister. With his pro-business hands steering the provincial economy, erstwhile rebels on the right wing of the party would likely keep their powder dry.
Twenty years ago, Bill Vander Zalm took over the leadership of the Social Credit Party in a fashion that resembles the path Ms. Clark is taking today. A former cabinet minister, Mr. Vander Zalm left government and returned to successfully run as premier under a populist banner. But his erratic style of governing and feeble grasp on what constituted a conflict of interest led to his demise and ultimately the disintegration of the party.
Ms. Clark is not Bill Vander Zalm. But should she win she will need to take immediate steps to heal the deep wounds that her campaign inflicted among those there to serve her.
It may be that winning the party leadership and governing the province is the easy part of all this for her.