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In Nova Scotia, Liberals get their groove back

Nova Scotia Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil greets supporters after his majority election win in Bridgetown, N.S., on Oct. 8, 2013.

DEVAAN INGRAHAM/REUTERS

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Two years ago, the Liberal brand appeared to be on the brink of extinction. But the party's Tuesday-night triumph in Nova Scotia is the latest evidence of the brand's renewal. This is not good news for Thomas Mulcair and even worse for Stephen Harper.

Stephen McNeil's thumping of the New Democrats in Nova Scotia will not encourage the federal NDP, whose dreams of emerging as the progressive governing alternative to the Conservatives are demonstrably fading. Similarly, the Liberal triumph reinforces the reality that the Conservatives' hopes of destroying the Liberal Party by crowding it out of existence – with the Tories occupying the centre-right and the NDP the centre-left – have been dealt a serious setback.

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This time two years ago, things were much more bleak. The leaderless national party had been reduced to third place in the federal election. And things were little better in the provinces. In British Columbia, Christy Clark appeared to be a dead premier walking. Dalton McGuinty's Liberals had been reduced to minority government in the Ontario election, and within a year he would be gone, beset by gas-plant scandals. Jean Charest was hanging on in Quebec, but he would not hang on for long.

It appeared entirely possible that by this autumn Robert Ghiz in Prince Edward Island might be the sole surviving Liberal first minister. Whether the party could recover from such a slough was a fair question.

To which the answer, it turned out, was yes.

Ms. Clark made fools of pundits and pollsters with a convincing majority-government win in May of this year. Mr. McGuinty was replaced by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Though the Liberals still trail in the polls in Ontario, no one is counting her out in an election that could come next spring.

Jean Charest's Liberals, though defeated, performed respectably in the 2012 election, and the fate of the minority PQ government of Pauline Marois is anyone's guess. And now the Liberals have Nova Scotia back in the tent. Not bad at all.

Most important, Justin Trudeau has breathed new life into the federal party, which is consistently – if narrowly – ahead in the polls. Mr. Trudeau was clearly an asset for Mr. McNeil when the federal leader campaigned for his provincial cousin in Nova Scotia. A Liberal victory federally in 2015 is still odds-against – even Liberal strategists quietly speak of a two-election strategy for returning to power – but the party is healthier and happier today than it has been at any time since Jean Chrétien ruled the roost.

Stephen Harper dreamed of making the Liberal brand so toxic that the party would be permanently unelectable. He came very close. But the name Trudeau appears to be a powerful decontaminant.

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Politics is fickle. The polarization between left and right in this country is real. The Liberals still have a long way to go.

But they have also come a long way. Tuesday night was simply the latest evidence of a clear truth: The Grits are back.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.

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