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At the starting gate, at least, Liberals ahead

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Vancouver — The Liberal Party of British Columbia has a solid lead and crucial momentum at the start of the 28-day election campaign that began yesterday, but voters aren't happy with Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell.

A new poll shows that while the election is the Liberals' to lose, a number of key factors are contributing to voter volatility that gives the resurgent New Democratic Party a chance to make considerable gains.

The poll, conducted by the Strategic Counsel for The Globe and Mail and CTV, found that if an election were held today the vote would be: Liberal, 46 per cent; NDP, 38 per cent; and the Green Party, 13 per cent. Others get only 3 per cent.

That would give the Liberals another majority government, but would likely mean a significant slip from where they stand now with 72 seats in the House, compared with just three for the NDP, one Democratic Reform B.C. Party and one independent.

Historically, an eight-point lead has generally been seen as insurmountable, but Allan Gregg, chairman of the Strategic Counsel, said voters aren't committed to parties the way they once were, and there could yet be a big shift.

"The [pollsters'] Rule of Eight used to hold that if you are eight points ahead, you couldn't lose, and if you are eight points behind you couldn't win," Mr. Gregg said. "That's not the case any more. The attachment to political parties is so tenuous that you can, as we've seen in the federal polls, have massive shifts in a short period of time. So you never say never. The lesson learned in recent times is that campaigns matter."

But the Liberals are clearly in the strongest position starting out, especially in the Fraser Valley and Okanagan, where they have a 26-point lead, with 56 per cent, compared with 30 per cent for the NDP. In Northern B.C./Kootenays, the Liberals have 44 per cent to 36 per cent for the NDP.

In Greater Vancouver the gap closes, with the Liberals at 44 per cent and the NDP close behind with 40 per cent. On Vancouver Island, the race is slightly tighter with the Liberals at 43 per cent and the NDP at 40 per cent. The Green Party has about 13 per cent of the vote in all regions except Vancouver Island and Northern B.C./Kootenays, where they have 14 per cent.

Mr. Gregg said 66 per cent of those surveyed felt the B.C. economy is better today than it was four years ago, and voters appear ready to concede that the Liberal government has done a good job on fiscal management.

"Right now, and things obviously can change between now and May 17, it appears to be more or less a referendum on the performance of the incumbent government. In that regard, they get kind of a gentlemen's C. Nothing exuberant, people aren't jumping up and down, but they are saying we should probably give them another chance," Mr. Gregg said.

He said the Liberals "are going to lose a significant number of seats and significant levels of support since the last provincial election," but the NDP is hampered by a lack of recognition for leader Carole James.

"The NDP, and Carole James in particular, have not been able to cut through either in terms of raising her profile — I mean, only 52 per cent of the population knows she is the leader — or in differentiating the new New Democrats from the old New Democrats sufficiently . . . to give people reason to throw the rascals out."

Only 29 per cent of voters agreed with the statement that Ms. James has changed the NDP from the party led by the controversial Glen Clark, who was premier from 1996 to 1999.

While Ms. James has a low profile to worry about, the Liberals are hurt by having a leader who is well known, but not well liked.

The poll found considerable dissatisfaction with Mr. Campbell, with 42 per cent of respondents rating his performance poor or very poor and 25 per cent calling it excellent to good.

The Liberal government did a bit better, with 30 per cent saying the performance level was excellent to good and 35 per cent saying it was poor to very poor.

Significantly, 64 per cent said they strongly or somewhat felt Mr. Campbell did not understand the concerns of ordinary British Columbians.

"The party is being held back a little bit by the Premier, who is seen as a very aloof guy," Mr. Gregg said. "They are giving him good grades for the economy and so-so grades for total government performance, but he trails in terms of his assessed performance and he trails the vote in terms of his personal appeal."

On top of that, 52 per cent agreed that the B.C. Liberals have not been as honest as most other governments, and 58 per cent said it is time for a change of government at the provincial level.

Mr. Campbell's party is off to a good start, however, with 58 per cent saying the Liberals have momentum while only 19 per cent say the NDP has momentum.

A large number of voters — 46 per cent — aren't pleased with any of the parties, but 42 per cent said the Liberals deserve another four years in office. At the same time, 36 per cent said the NDP doesn't deserve a chance at governing and 46 per cent said a vote for the Green Party would be wasted.

Mr. Gregg said the Green Party largely appears cast in the role of spoiler.

"If you look at what drives the Green vote . . . it's just antipathy for the choices available," he said. "They might eke out a seat or two along the coast, but there's not much support. . . ."

On the question of who would make the best premier, 39 per cent said Mr. Campbell, 30 per cent said Ms. James and just 7 per cent said Adriane Carr of the Green Party.

And 50 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that while Ms. James may be a new leader, the NDP has mostly kept the same policies and people as when Mr. Clark was premier.

Norm Ruff, a professor of political science at the University of Victoria, said the NDP has to raise Ms. James's profile and hope that people like her.

"That James is still an unknown quantity to B.C. voters has to be troubling to the NDP," Prof. Ruff said. "The next 28 days are crucial for her and for the NDP."

The challenge for the Liberals, he said, is to trumpet their fiscal performance without putting Mr. Campbell too much in the spotlight.

"The Liberals have to build on the feeling of optimism in the province," he said. "In their ads they have to show more B.C. scenery — and less Campbell."

The poll, conducted between April 13 and 16 on a provincewide sample of 1,000 respondents, yields a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

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