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Taking a lesson from Alberta, Clark edges back to the centre

Port Moody-Coquitlam Liberal by-election candidate Dennis Marsden, right, and B.C. Premier Christy Clark talk to the media at Mr. Marsden's campaign office in Port Moody on Thursday April 19, 2012.

DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail/darryl dyck The Globe and Mail

Chalking up a lesson from the Alberta election, B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark is tacking back to a more centrist message – after spending months burnishing her party's conservative credentials.

Senior B.C. Liberal advisers say Ms. Clark – who just last month was dubbed the "Iron Snowbird" by Reform Party icon Preston Manning – is not changing her way of governing, but is shifting her emphasis.

It is a tacit acknowledgment that her efforts to win back supporters from the B.C. Conservatives has left more centrist, liberal voters cold.

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"The lesson, for me, is that people want a strong coalition," Ms. Clark told reporters in Victoria on Tuesday. "In British Columbia, the recipe for success is to make sure we have a strong thriving economy and the reason we want that is so that we can make sure people can put food on the table for their kids and look after the most vulnerable in society."

The new tone could mean that, in the months ahead, Ms. Clark will underline the differences between the B.C. Liberals and the B.C. Conservatives rather than trying to blur the lines.

Ms. Clark emphasized her decision a year ago to raise the minimum wage, and her promise to establish a "family day" statutory holiday.

"The thing for us, in our coalition, is to speak to all the members of our coalition," she said. "I've done a lot of things that have made conservatives happy, and a lot of things that have made people at the centre, liberals, happy, I hope."

She revelled, however, in the fact that Alison Redford and the Progressive Conservatives defeated their Wildrose rivals on Monday despite trailing in the polls going into the campaign. It appears support for the Alberta PCs surged in the final days of the campaign – a lightning-fast turnaround that gives hope to the B.C. Liberals, who have a year to rebuild.

Like Ms. Redford, Ms. Clark's party is facing a tough challenge from the right. The B.C. Conservatives took 25 per cent of the vote in the Chilliwack-Hope by-election last week – enough to ensure a historic victory for the B.C. New Democrats.

Ms. Clark's situation differs from that of her Alberta counterpart in that, while her personal popularity has dropped, the New Democrats are on firm ground, so there is little opportunity to pick up support from the centre-left.

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Chuck Strahl, a former federal Conservative cabinet minister who has campaigned for the Clark Liberals in British Columbia, said the lesson from Alberta may be that Ms. Clark should broaden her focus – the B.C. Conservative leadership is not going to be moved.

"I don't think you can cater to them. There may be something in showing the open door, 'We're ready to talk,' " he said in an interview.

"But she has to appeal, and be that person that appeals, to the broad, centrist group," he added. "Don't fixate on John Cummins, because John is never going to switch, but you can run a good government and people may well decide in the end that's the best option."

Ms. Clark has gone out of her way to play up her connections with federal Conservatives – Mr. Strahl included – since she won the leadership of her party in a bid to balance out her own strong liberal background. The B.C. Liberal Party has won three straight elections as a coalition of liberals and conservatives.

But Mr. Strahl observed that in British Columbia, conservative appeal must be cultivated carefully.

"It's nothing like Alberta. People here are not as conservative as across the mountains," he said. "Where the old Reform Party had success, it was on some of the populist things that people – including New Democrats – felt comfortable with."

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A party insider noted that Ms. Clark has an eternity – in political terms – to get that balance right.

The Alberta PCs were on track to lose the election right up until the final days of the campaign. "Since a week is enough time to change, a year should be plenty of time," the source said.

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