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Campbell contradiction

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It was a private exchange and Ms. Clark said she has no doubts that it was sincere.

"He really does care about people, about how they are doing," she said.

But this is the same Premier who earned the enmity of the public by firing public servants, bringing in tougher social-assistance rules, closing courthouses, reducing legal assistance and bashing the teachers' union as he cut education spending.

A tough guy delivered those policies; so tough his NDP enemies labelled him heartless.

In caucus, however, Mr. Campbell has shown another, surprisingly vulnerable side.

Shortly after the 1996 election, which gave former NDP leader Glen Clark an unexpected victory, Mr. Campbell's political career seemed on the verge of collapse. There was speculation that he would be replaced as leader because he'd handled the campaign so badly, "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," as former NDP premier Mike Harcourt put it.

With the encouragement of close friends, Mr. Campbell decided to hang on. But he was under immense pressure.

Former Liberal MLA Paul Nettleton recalled a moment when Mr. Campbell lost his carefully maintained composure.

"There was some debate going on in the room, some normal course of exchange, and I remember seeing him looking out the window with this destitute look on his face. His lip began to quiver and he broke down. That's the only time I've seen that. It was early '97. Room 201. He was sitting at the end of the table looking out on the rose garden [at the legislature]."

Whatever doubts or pressures Mr. Campbell was struggling with that day, he regained his composure, and in the months that followed consolidated his grip on the party, soon becoming its unchallenged leader. "It marked a turn to the right. He became tougher after that and more of a control freak."

Mr. Nettleton said MLAs, perhaps because of those shaky days, aren't allowed to criticize the Liberal Leader. And few ever do.

One who did said she was surprised by the way the urbane, self-contained politician suddenly lashed out at her in response.

Elayne Brenzinger, a former Liberal MLA who is now running for the Democratic Reform B.C. Party, said she quickly learned that "in caucus you couldn't stand up and challenge him, it just wasn't done."

But Ms. Brenzinger wasn't one to sit meekly by, and when she got a chance to send a zinger at Mr. Campbell, in a caucus meeting, she did. What happened next shocked her.

"It was late on a Tuesday night. We were all tired. One member was talking about a fundraiser and the Premier made some comment to the effect that he didn't remember it or if he wasn't there it didn't happen.

"I just said, and it was meant to be funny, 'You know Gordon, it isn't all about you.' It got a big laugh.

"He got up and walked along, like he does when he's on stage, and then he said it. 'Fuck you too, Elayne.' People laughed a bit but I think most were shocked. I tried to be tough and not show how I felt. But when I went out to the car I was crying."

Ms. Brenzinger said the Premier later apologized to her, but their relationship quickly deteriorated, until she became convinced she wasn't wanted in the party, and last year walked away.

"I challenged him and he made me into an example to caucus. You've got to understand, it's a whole different world inside Gordon Campbell's party. It's a cult," she said.

Ms. Clark, a dynamic and strong-willed politician, disagrees.

"You can challenge him. You can argue with him. He loves kicking ideas around. But you have to have your facts together. He's a very intelligent guy and he's not going to tolerate some frivolous point," she said.

One of the criticisms long levelled at Mr. Campbell is that he has trouble relating to women, causing a gender gap, identified by polls, which showed a majority of women voters favour the NDP, led by Carol James.

But Ms. Clark said the numbers simply showed that the Liberal emphasis on economic issues had initially appealed more to men than women. She said the gender gap could easily be closed, and just last week, a Mustel Group poll proved her right, as it showed 43 per cent of women say they would vote Liberal, compared with 39 per cent who would vote NDP.

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