The fiddler from Cape Breton pulled it off - barely. Rodney MacDonald won a minority government in Nova Scotia Tuesday, proving his party was right to pick a rookie cabinet minister to lead the Progressive Conservatives and the province.
"Nova Scotia is truly a great province where the son of Mabou County can be elected premier," Mr. MacDonald, 34, told a throng of cheering supporters in his Cape Breton hometown, his wife Lori-Ann and son Ryan by his side. Mr. MacDonald's narrow win is the third minority government for Nova Scotia in less than a decade.
Last night, he vowed to respect his narrow mandate and work with the opposition parties.
"I pledge to do my part as PC Leader to put political differences ... aside and always put the people's interests first," he said.
Canada's youngest premier must now face the music and find a way to deliver on a string of pricey campaign promises that amount to more than $1-billion over four years, including a $75-million pledge to remove the provincial sales tax from home energy bills.
Mr. MacDonald's slim victory capped an uninspiring campaign in which all three parties put forward similar platforms that promised millions in new spending.
All three were vague on policy and vision for the province.
Voters responded to the lack of passion with a tepid nod to the Tory Leader.
Last night, the Conservatives were elected or leading in 23 seats, four short of the 27 needed to form a majority. The New Democrats won 20 and the Liberals trailed with nine seats. Liberal Leader Francis MacKenzie announced he was quitting politics after failing to win his own riding.
With little debate to spice the campaign, it came down to whom voters trusted to lead the province. NDP Leader Darrell Dexter, a former journalist and lawyer, was the most experienced of the three political leaders and he gave Mr. MacDonald a tough fight. Polls showed the two running neck and neck until the last two weeks of the campaign, when the Conservatives pulled ahead.
Despite their loss, the New Democrats improved their standing in the legislature. Their 20 seats represent a record high. Mr. Dexter told supporters he took some consolation in depriving the Conservatives of a majority.
"But they did get re-elected," he said, promising to continue the party's tradition of co-operating with the governing Conservatives.
"I have to be who I am and I'm basically a constructive person and I'm going to continue to bring forward the issues that I think will make life for the people in this province better," he said.
Mr. MacDonald, a former professional fiddler and junior cabinet minister in the John Hamm government, was under intense pressure to win a majority. He scored an upset in February by winning the tightly contested Conservative leadership race. At the time, some questioned the wisdom of handing the leadership to a neophyte, but delegates said they wanted a fresh face to offer voters.
Mr. MacDonald's inexperience was apparent on the campaign trail, where advisers kept him on a tight leash. During the televised debates, he appeared stiff and often simply repeated his message as if reading a script. During a scrum on the day before the election, a reporter asked him what his first priority would be if elected. "We'll just see what happens tomorrow night," he responded.
Both the NDP and the Tories promised to cut taxes, invest in roads, hire police officers, regulate gas prices, shorten health-care waiting times, reduce postsecondary tuition and eliminate the provincial sales tax on home-heating bills. Revenues from the offshore natural-gas industry would pay the bills.
The Liberals tried to paint the New Democrats and Conservatives as identical parties with equally poor visions for the future. But the day's biggest loss was suffered by Mr. MacKenzie, a former bureaucrat who took over the party after Danny Graham resigned in 2003. Last night, Mr. MacKenzie announced he was stepping down after losing his riding to Conservative Len Goucher.
"It's the end of a journey for me," Mr. MacKenzie told a crowd of supporters last night. "It's been 19 months and I've tried to serve the people of this province. Not winning a seat in Bedford marks a big turn in the road for me."
Mr. MacKenzie said he was disappointed in the results, but "the people of Nova Scotia have spoken and I certainly respect their decision."
The Liberals got off to a shaky start and never caught up to the front-runners. The party did not run a full slate of candidates and Mr. MacKenzie spent more than half the campaign in his own riding.
At dissolution, the Tories held 25 of the legislature's 52 seats, the NDP had 15 and the Liberals 10. There was one Independent and one seat was vacant.
With a report from Canadian Press