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NDP Leader is the wild card in B.C. campaign

In the absence of the kind of monster issue that can divide voters, the leaders of British Columbia's two main political parties officially kick off their election campaigns today, with one trying to sell a personal style as much as a political philosophy.

Almost from the time she won her party's leadership in November 2003, NDP Leader Carole James has been travelling B.C.'s highways, grabbing time at every chamber of commerce luncheon and union gathering that would have her. While the strategy allowed Ms. James to meet British Columbians where they lived and worked, it prevented her from getting the more widespread media exposure she would have received hanging out near the legislature in Victoria, speaking out on the issues of the day.

After today, Ms. James' every word will be recorded by a phalanx of reporters dogging her every step. And it won't take long for the electorate to begin forming its impression of her.

Kyle Braid, vice-president of the Ipsos-Reid polling firm, says that Ms. James is the wild card in this election.

"British Columbians don't know much about her," said Mr. Braid in an interview. "They don't know if she's premier material at this point and on her shoulders will rise and fall the opportunities for the NDP."

B.C. is known for its polarized politics. So far, however, Ms. James has attempted to obscure the ideological divide that has historically existed at election time. She is not peddling traditional socialist dogma, especially as it pertains to the economy. While certainly trying to capitalize on the NDP's long held strengths -- such as social issues -- Ms. James has also tried to reach out to those who feel the NDP a) doesn't know how to manage a budget and b) takes its marching orders from big labour.

In the lead up to the campaign, Ms. James made it clear to union bosses throughout the province that their concerns will not take priority over those of the business community. And to assuage the fears of the corporate community, Ms. James has repeatedly said her government will not run deficits.

More than anything, perhaps, Ms. James will be trying to persuade voters her style of governing would be radically different than Gordon Campbell's. She will be packaging herself as a political moderate, who prefers reaching out to as many groups as possible as opposed to what Ms. James says is the exclusionary world of the Liberals who care only about the wealthy.

The NDP intends to run television ads early in the campaign that show Ms. James calmly discussing her "reasoned" approach to government. That compares to the NDP's campaign in the last election that used grainy, black-and-white images of Mr. Campbell designed to make him look like a scary and deranged right-wing zealot.

According to Mr. Braid, the NDP's new softer approach may stem from the fact that those undecided voters still left are smack dab in the middle of the political spectrum. In other words, traditional NDP supporters don't need any more convincing of what they feel is Mr. Campbell's neo-conservative one-man show. Instead, the voters the party is after have strong social consciences but also value a strong economy.

If, in the minds of those undecideds, it's a close call between the two leaders, they may end up voting for the party whose leader makes them feel the most comfortable. By creating Ms. James in the image of a likeable, consensus-seeking moderate, the NDP hopes it will pull in some of those undecided votes.

For Mr. Campbell, who enters the campaign with an eight-point lead over the New Democrats in a recent poll, his aim will be to try and avoid any glaring mishaps while hammering home his party's promise of a Golden Decade.

The Liberals will try to capitalize on the province's robust economy, even if some feel they're taking far too much credit for something that has more to do with global economic conditions. It will be Mr. Campbell's job to persuade voters they will personally benefit from these economic good times -- and they don't want to mess up that opportunity by voting NDP.

The election is also expected to highlight two plainly different styles of campaigning. While Ms. James is expected to run a more traditional-style operation, with bus tours of two and three days in duration taking place throughout the province, Mr. Campbell's whereabouts will be kept quieter than a papal vote. The media covering him may not know where they are going until the morning they board the bus or plane to head to whichever community they are heading.

Why?

Protesters.

In the past, the release of the Premier's itinerary has given opposition groups plenty of time to organize protests that ruined long-planned photo-ops. Mr. Campbell, thanks to several cost-cutting measures early in his mandate, has plenty of enemies who would love to confront him on the campaign trail.

If Mr. Campbell's handlers have their way, however, those protesters won't hear about the Premier's arrival in town until after he's left.

gmason@globeandmail.ca

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