Moments before Premier Greg Selinger officially launched Manitoba's provincial election campaign, there are already signs that it is likely to have a more negative tone.
As he walked from the legislature to the lieutenant-governor's office on Tuesday, Mr. Selinger was greeted by the head of a taxpayer lobby group that had parked a van outside with a sign denouncing the province's increasing debt load.
"Want a ride?" asked Colin Craig, local director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
"Where's your friend, Hughie?" Mr. Selinger fired back, in reference to Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen.
An hour later, Mr. Selinger was telling more than 300 party faithful a Tory government would spell disaster for Manitoba.
"We know the Conservatives would cut the things that matter to Manitoba families. We can't let them near our health-care system," the NDP premier told the crowd.
"Can we believe Mr. McFadyen will protect our lakes and rivers?"
"No," party members responded in unison.
Mr. Selinger also accused Mr. McFadyen of having a secret plan to privatize Manitoba Hydro, fire nurses and cut public-sector jobs – which the Tory leader has denied.
Across town, Mr. McFadyen was accusing the NDP of having its own hidden agenda.
"Mr. Selinger says he will balance the budget by 2014, which we know can't happen without one of two things – deep spending cuts or a major tax increase for Manitoba families," Mr. McFadyen said.
Analysts and opinion polls suggest Mr. Selinger is in a tight battle to take the New Democrats to a fourth consecutive majority on Oct. 4 – a date set under the province's new fixed election law.
The campaign is the first real test of Mr. Selinger's popularity. He was chosen when Gary Doer resigned in 2009 to become Canada's ambassador to the U.S.
NDP support dipped in opinion polls several months after the transition when the economy appeared set to falter and government-backed projects such as Winnipeg's new football stadium needed a controversial infusion of cash. But recent polls suggest the New Democrats are running neck-and-neck with the Conservatives, although the NDP holds a substantial edge in seat-rich Winnipeg.
The province's economic growth has remained slow but steady, housing prices are stable, unemployment is low and the NHL has returned to Winnipeg. The NDP has also rejected federal overtures to harmonize its sales tax with the federal goods and services tax, so the government is not facing a consumer backlash.
The opposition has focused much of its energy on accusing the government of bungling the province's finances as well as some major projects. The Tories pepper their pamphlets and speeches with the word "mismanagement" to describe the NDP's five straight budget deficits, rising health-care costs and the spiralling cost of a new hydro transmission line called BiPole Three.
The opposition parties have signalled they will make crime a campaign issue. They accuse the NDP of failing to stem high rates of homicide, robbery and assaults.
The Tories promised Tuesday to crack down on gangs and set up a police-dog training centre, while Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard started his campaign by promising to give kids an alternative to gangs.
At a Winnipeg community centre, Mr. Gerrard said his party's candidates would push for $4.6-million more for recreational programming.
"Study after study have shown that funding and getting young people involved in recreation means that young people are not committing crimes," he said. "For every 57 young people who are playing hockey, that's 57 young people who are not in gangs."
The election will hinge on suburban ridings in south and west Winnipeg – traditional Tory seats that have swung to the NDP in the past three elections.
The New Democrats captured 36 of the legislature's 57 seats in 2007. The Tories were reduced to 19 and the Liberals won two.
The Tories are facing an uphill battle in Winnipeg because of low support for the Liberals. Traditionally, the Tories have formed government whenever the Liberals have been strong enough to drain urban votes from the NDP. But for the last dozen years under leader Mr. Gerrard, the Liberals have garnered about 13 per cent of the vote in each election and have not captured more than two seats.
The Canadian Press