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'Potential cocktail' could put Liberals in the drink

While the B.C. Liberals will no doubt be heartened by today's poll, which shows they start this campaign with a healthy lead, they shouldn't ignore the subtle warnings the survey contains.

Reading between the lines makes it clear the electorate is in a volatile mood and the Liberals' recent advantage looks to be built on an extremely shaky foundation. One misstep by their unpopular leader, Gordon Campbell, and that lead could disappear faster than beer at a frat party.

"There is lots of stuff the Liberals should be worried about," says Allan Gregg, chairman of the Strategic Counsel, which conducted the poll.

"First, there is a general sentiment out there that it's time for a change. There also seems to be questions about honesty that, in part, seems to be related to the Liberal brand that is a spillover from the Gomery inquiry. And then finally, they have a leader who doesn't seem to be particularly in touch with voters or is particularly well liked by the electorate."

Some of the more damning results from the poll: 58 per cent believe it's time for a change in government; 64 per cent say Gordon Campbell does not understand the concerns of ordinary British Columbians; 52 per cent believe the Liberals have not been as honest as other governments. And 37 per cent say revelations at the Gomery inquiry are causing them to doubt whether they should vote for the B.C. Liberals.

"All of those things," Mr. Gregg said, "are a potential cocktail that could kill the potential celebrating of the victors."

The provincewide poll should give Mr. Campbell lots to think about during his first full day of campaigning today in the Fraser Valley and Interior.

What's particularly surprising about some of the negative results is the way they contrast with other numbers in the survey. For example, 66 per cent of those polled said the economy was better off today (under the Liberal government) than it was four years ago (under the NDP). That is a staggeringly high number. Once upon a time that kind of figure would have represented a victory of almost landslide proportions at the polls.

Not now. Not in this province, at least.

Why? It could be the NDP has done an effective job in recent weeks of persuading voters that while the economy might be better today than it was four years ago, the Liberals don't deserve much credit for it. Or it could be that while voters are prepared to acknowledge the economy is booming, it doesn't mean they have to like Mr. Campbell or his party.

After all, something has to explain the fact that nearly 60 per cent of those polled would like to see a change in government.

Of course the catch is: A solid 46 per cent don't like any of the political choices this election offers.

Which isn't good news for the NDP.

B.C.'s main opposition party is, let's not forget, still eight points behind starting out this race. On top of that, only 52 per cent polled knew Carole James is leader of the party. And half those polled believe the NDP is filled with the same bad apples it had during the bad old days of deposed premier Glen Clark. A-not-insignificant 36 per cent felt the NDP did not deserve a chance to govern.

So, lots of negative numbers in there for the NDP too. However, its strategy of focusing on Ms. James, and the warmer, more conciliatory and consensus-seeking leadership style she is promoting appears to be the right one, according to Mr. Gregg.

"They've got to run the campaign on leadership," he said. "They've got to get [Ms. James's] profile up, make her front and centre in the ad campaigns. I'd be offering the stark contrast in styles and talk about the need to be in touch with the common man, sharing the same values as the average person, these sorts of things."

The Liberals, meantime, seem to be doing what they need to be doing based on the polling. And that is to run a tightly scripted, Boy in the Bubble type campaign in which no one knows exactly where Mr. Campbell will be until he shows up.

The last thing his tour needs is protesters showing up, disrupting his stops, screaming in his face and having the whole scene blasted all over the evening news, further cementing the impression that Mr. Campbell is one of the most disliked premiers in modern B.C. history.

And that's saying a lot.

While the prevailing wisdom has been that this could be one of the most boring B.C. election campaigns in recent memory, it may turn out to be just the opposite. Right now there isn't a sufficiently galvanizing concern about the Liberals that would prompt the electorate to throw them out. But that's right now.

In a province with some of the most cynical voters on the planet, a lot could change in the course of 28 days. A lot could change in 24 hours.

Just watch.

gmason@globeandmail.ca

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