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Russell MacLellan, who rushed into the job of Nova Scotia premier three years ago, announced yesterday that he is easing his way out of politics.

Mr. MacLellan, 59, cheerfully told reporters at a hastily arranged news conference that he will resign as Liberal Leader on June 30 and will step down as an MLA some time after that.

The move comes as the Liberals appear about to lose their status of sharing the Official Opposition with the NDP in the provincial legislature. A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge has indicated that a by-election will likely be needed after a hearing revealed irregularities in a Cape Breton riding won by Liberal David Wilson last July. The Liberals and NDP now hold 11 seats each in the provincial legislature.

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But Mr. MacLellan, who was also facing a mandatory leadership review in March, insisted the setback had nothing to do with his resignation. Instead, the stage was set for his departure after a disastrous election campaign last July in which voters propelled the Progressive Conservatives into office and kicked the Liberals out.

He gave no indication of what his plans are for the future. Mr. MacLellan devoted most his statement to mulling over that campaign, insisting that the three-way fight for office left voters confused last July.

"I did my best to serve the people while in office. I offered my continued service but for whatever reason the people looked elsewhere," Mr. MacLellan said.

He accused the Tories of making a "disingenuous appeal for support" during the campaign and of evading issues such as the need to make major investments in the health-care system. The announcement ended a tumultuous three years for the long-time federal Liberal backbencher who came back to his home province to win the premier's job in 1997. He won an upset victory over favourite Bernie Boudreau, who is now a senator, in a hard-fought leadership campaign.

But the affable, Cape Bretoner was never able to put a new look on a Liberal government that under Dr. John Savage had made such unpopular moves as adopting a federal-provincial sales tax, creating regional governments and allowing construction of casinos.

His first low-key election campaign in 1998 ended in a stalemate and a minority government that lasted about a year.

Last July, a strident contest based on a plan to borrow $600-million to reform the health-care system left the Liberals tied for second place as the Tories rolled to victory.

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Mr. MacLellan's resignation leaves Nova Scotia with two lame-duck leaders heading into a contentious session of the legislature during which the Tories will try to enact spending cuts required to deal with the province's rising deficit. NDP Leader Robert Chisholm announced in November of last year that he is stepping down.

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