In person, he comes across as charming, considerate and extremely well-read. But his public persona is very different.
At a recent appearance at the Vancouver Board of Trade, he is a cool, detached corporate executive as he strides out from behind the podium to talk, without notes, about the world of balance sheets, numbers and policy. But the youthful-looking, 57-year-old politician, who has been in elected office at the civic and provincial levels for 21 years, fails to project any warmth. He's cool and distant, as if he is selling commodities and not ideas meant to inspire a province.
"There's something about him. People can't break through and make a connection," says Jeremy Dalton, a former Liberal MLA who is a neighbour at Mr. Campbell's summer retreat in Halfmoon Bay on the Sunshine Coast.
"And despite knowing him for many years, I can't say that I really know him. He's very private. We all have personalities and his is complicated," Mr. Dalton said.
That's not surprising, perhaps, given his difficult childhood. When he was 13, his father, Dr. Charles Gordon (Chargo) Campbell, assistant dean of medicine at the University of British Columbia, overdosed on prescription drugs. Peg Campbell, her daughter and three sons, were forced to move out of their Point Grey family home and take a small apartment. A life of privilege suddenly became hardscrabble.
Mr. Campbell emerged from that childhood to pursue a political career of soaring ambition. He has never personally lost an election, and polls show his party with a solid eight-point lead over the NDP.
Despite his winning record, Mr. Campbell has been warning Liberals they could lose the May 17 election. It's as if he has never forgotten how quickly the world can change or how painful that can be.
He should know. Of the many faces B.C.'s 34th Premier has, one that keeps popping up, pasted to light poles and bus-stop shelters, is a grainy mug shot that shows a slightly dazed Mr. Campbell, an uncomprehending grin plastered on his face as he stares at a police identity camera in Hawaii, shortly after being arrested in January of 2003 for impaired driving. That was his wild side, never seen before, or since, by the public.
No matter how close they stand, the journalists who have covered him for more than two decades, first as mayor of Vancouver, then as leader of the opposition, then as Premier, never manage to penetrate his personal space. Not even fervent talk-show hosts such as Rafe Mair or Bill Good can knock him off the message track. But behind the closed doors of cabinet and caucus meetings, he can flare in anger, or even break down and cry.
Which is the real Gordon Campbell? The policy wonk who calls colleagues late at night to bounce ideas off of them? The drinking driver veering over the centre line? The tough politician who can stick to his policies even when thousands of angry protesters fill the streets? Or the vulnerable man who is not above weeping openly?
Many people agree that Mr. Campbell is a complicated individual who is intellectually much deeper than his critics acknowledge and much more sensitive than his public image suggests. He is a man who, in seeking to protect himself in the rough- and-tumble world of politics, may have layered on armour so thick that he can't let his true feelings show.
"He has trouble, like a lot of people do, revealing his inner emotions. That's difficult for him," said Christy Clark, the former deputy premier of B.C. and a long-time political colleague. "But that's true for a lot of us. He really is a very supportive, very caring guy."
Ms. Clark, a star in the Liberal cabinet, shocked nearly everyone in B.C. last September when she announced she was leaving politics to spend more time with her growing son. But when she broke the word to Mr. Campbell, she said, his response was immediate.
"That's great," he told her. "That's what you have to do. Family comes first."
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.
The recent signing of former CBC chairwoman Carole Taylor as a star Liberal candidate no doubt helped shift women voters into the Liberal column. But Ms. Clark said Mr. Campbell has always tried hard to draw women into the party and has welcomed their contribution.
"If he had trouble appreciating the role women play politically, he wouldn't have made me deputy premier and he wouldn't have given me all the support and encouragement he did," Ms. Clark said.
She said Mr. Campbell recognized abilities in her that she didn't even know she had, and gave her challenges that allowed her to flourish in a pressure-packed, male-dominated world.
Mr. Campbell, nurturing the political interests of women? It doesn't fit with his image, but then many things don't. Norman Ruff, a veteran observer and a professor of political science at the University of Victoria, said there is an intriguing dichotomy to Mr. Campbell.
"On the one hand he is a tough guy who is able to make hard decisions and follow through on difficult policy initiatives. On the other hand he seems to want to be liked.
"He remains somewhat of a puzzle, despite all his years in the public arena," Prof. Ruff said.
"It's completely wrong to say he's mean and uncaring, but I wouldn't go to the other side and say there's a hidden compassionate streak either.
"He's a career politician but there still seems to be a degree of discomfort, a kind of over-hype, in the way he delivers his message . . . he's got this evangelical, preacher style he falls into."
In one recent address, he noted, Mr. Campbell actually spoke to himself on stage, saying "calm down," after almost shouting about an NDP policy that would take essential-service designation away from teachers.
"It seems he is just trying too hard," Prof. Ruff said.
"It all stems, I think, from an underlying insecurity inside Campbell. There is this inner conflict and he deals with it by saying 'I'm tough. I can handle hard decisions.' And on the other hand he is saying, 'Please like me.' His insecurity is surprising because, given the position he's in, with the economy going and the polls in his favour, he should really be bursting with confidence."
Prof. Ruff said he thinks the Liberal government reflects its leader's conflicted emotions in its own policies.
"The first three years we saw that toughness [in restraint policies], but suddenly, in the last nine months, it's all been kiss-and-make-up politics." Prof. Ruff said. "But you have to wonder, is what we are seeing now the Campbell of post-2005 or is this just something for the campaign that will vanish after the election?"
Questions like that have always seemed to hang over Mr. Campbell, but it hasn't stopped people from voting for him.
Mr. Campbell and his wife of 34 years, Nancy, spent two years as volunteers in Nigeria, working for CUSO, shortly after their marriage. They have two grown sons, Geoffrey and Nicholas.
Mr. Cambell has a BA in English from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and an MBA from Simon Fraser University. Before entering politics, he worked at Marathon Realty and had his own development company, which put up two midsize hotels in Vancouver. In the early 1970s he worked as an assistant to Art Phillips, who was then the mayor of Vancouver, and got a taste for public service.
First elected leader of the B.C. Liberal Party in September of 1993, he gained a seat in the legislature in a 1994 by-election, was re-elected in 1996 and then in 2001 led his party to the largest victory in the province's history, claiming all but two seats. The latest poll has his party leading the NDP by 46 per cent to 38 per cent. With that margin, and the economy strong, Mr. Campbell should cruise to victory.
But just last week he cautioned Liberals not to take anything for granted, not even in his own riding. He knows from experience that life can change suddenly and it's best to be on guard.