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At peace, on the eve of political war'If the opposition parties and trade unions want to attack me for what we've accomplished so far, let them go right ahead,' Gordon Campbell tells The Globe's GARY MASON

'If the opposition parties and trade unions want to attack me for what we've accomplished so far, let them go right ahead,' Gordon Campbell tells The Globe's GARY MASON

He seems resigned to what's awaiting him in a couple of weeks time. He knows how ugly provincial election campaigns often get in British Columbia. He knows there will be things said about him that will turn his stomach and send his blood pressure soaring.

Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell knows, too, there will be days his family wished he would quit politics and take a nice, out-of-the-limelight job in the private sector somewhere.

But he won't. Not now anyway.

"I don't know if you ever get used to the personal attacks," Mr. Campbell said in an interview. "It's more a case of, 'Buddy if you want the job, you'd better accept they're going to attack you.' I can handle it, but it's hurtful to your family and I think that's one of the reasons people do it.

"It's a way around issues, around ideas . . . it's an unfortunate part about politics."

And a constant reality of Mr. Campbell's political life.

Not since Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett, now seven premiers ago, has a B.C. leader had to endure the kind of vilification Mr. Campbell has since arriving on the provincial scene in 1996.

Sure, every premier between these two have had to submit to public ridicule and abuse -- just ask Glen Clark and Bill Vander Zalm -- but not nearly for the same stretch of time as Mr. Campbell.

In his case, the attacks have come from all directions: public- and private-sector unions, anti-poverty groups and, of course, other political organizations, with the New Democratic Party leading the way.

Mr. Campbell has been chased through airports by angry protesters, and today has a tight RCMP security patrol nearby at all times. At the legislature, an unmarked van occupied by an RCMP officer pulls up to his office each night to ensure his safe passage to the family's Victoria townhouse.

His enemies have also been successful in circulating scurrilous rumours about his private life that have become urban folklore in these parts. The fact that Mr. Campbell and his wife Nancy have been happily married for 34 years matters not a wit, it seems. Everything is fair game when it comes to B.C. politics, even the truth.

Some say it's Mr. Campbell's neoconservative economic agenda that has made him such a juicy target. Others suggest the NDP has zeroed in on him because his personal approval rating has always lagged behind that of his party. By constantly attacking Mr. Campbell, and associating him with every negative thing the government does, his opponents hope it will ultimately erode support for his party, too.

It worked in 1996 when Mr. Clark led the New Democrats to office in an election most believed Mr. Campbell and the Liberals would win handily.

It didn't work in 2001 when all the personal attacks in the world on Mr. Campbell were not going to change the mind of a public fed up with the NDP. Which brings us to the May 17 election.

By rights, Mr. Campbell should be feeling pretty good about his party's chances of re-election. The B.C. economy is booming, thanks in large measure to initiatives the Liberals introduced after taking office. A recent poll found 73 per cent of British Columbians believe the economy is in good or very good shape.

The same mid-March poll also indicated the Liberals were opening up a bit of a lead over the New Democrats, 46 per cent to 39. Of those polled, 47 per cent believed Mr. Campbell was the best choice for premier compared with 36 per cent for NDP Leader Carole James -- another bit of good news for the Premier.

Amid all the positive figures, however, lurked the one number Mr. Campbell has had the most trouble improving: his dreaded personal-approval rating. Only 42 per cent of those polled approved of his performance, while a staggering 58 per cent believed Mr. Campbell is a liability to his party. The big question remains why.

The simple answer would be that the NDP and various opposition groups have done an effective job of "demonizing" Mr. Campbell by making him the public face of everything bad in British Columbia.

That wouldn't account, however, for the unease a large segment of the public, particularly women, has had with Mr. Campbell almost from the day he left his mayor's chair in Vancouver to become Liberal Leader.

In person, Mr. Campbell comes across as warm and personable. If he had the chance to spend a little one-on-one time with every British Columbian, his advisers say, his personal-approval numbers would skyrocket.

A big part of his problem is television, a medium he is still trying to master despite all his years of training.

"It's an area I have to improve on, no question," Mr. Campbell said. "I've gotten better in the last four years but I still have a ways to go. In part, I think it's the culture of the scrum."

The one thing Mr. Campbell is not lacking as he prepares for electoral war is confidence. He believes strongly in the course his government has set and he doesn't believe voters will want to mess with the momentum the province is building as the 2010 Olympics gets ever closer.

"I'm pretty much at peace with where we are because I think we did the right things and we're starting to see the benefits of that now," Mr. Campbell said. "If the opposition parties and trade unions want to attack me for what we've accomplished so far, let them go right ahead."

They'll likely take him up on that.

gmason@globeandmail.ca

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