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Preaching to a handpicked choir

LANGLEY, B.C.

ounded onto the stage to the pounding beat of his new campaign song and with a loving, handpicked crowd on its feet to applaud every sentence of his carefully crafted speech.

"Who's excited about this election?" yelled a tanned and fit-looking Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell above the din.

"We are!" a couple hundred campaign workers enthusiastically bellowed in response.

"Who's going to win this election?" Mr. Campbell asked.

"We are!" his fans screamed again.

The provincial election was officially called a day earlier, but yesterday was the real start of the 28-day political crusade. It was the first full day of touring for Mr. Campbell and the other party leaders, the day they would pull back the curtains on the overarching themes of their campaigns.

Mr. Campbell's foray into the Fraser Valley and Interior offered few surprises, which may be a theme in itself. With an eight-point lead over their main opponent -- Carole James and the New Democratic Party -- the Liberals' strategy is clear.

Keep it simple, stupid.

To that end, Mr. Campbell's tour of the province will be one of the most tightly scripted and excessively managed political exercises in some time. Part of that plan includes staying away from those impromptu confrontations that look horrible on the evening news and reinforce the notion, particularly in Mr. Campbell's case, that the people of British Columbia don't like this government.

Instead, Mr. Campbell's advisers will try building as many stops as they can that look and sound like his first one yesterday morning held in the atrium of a golf-course clubhouse in Langley, a sprawling suburb east of Vancouver in the Fraser Valley.

After introducing a couple of dozen Liberal candidates from the Greater Vancouver area to the partisan crowd, Mr. Campbell wasted little time launching into an aggressive defence of his government's record.

Feeding off a crowd that didn't need to be sold, the Liberal Leader hit oratorical heights that would have made a Baptist preacher proud.

And his congregation responded, turning the 30-minute stop into a revival of sorts.

"We want to create a future for British Columbians," Mr. Campbell said. "The NDP has a craving for the past."

"No, no! We don't want that!" someone from his flock yelled out.

"We want to move forward in forestry, we want to move forward in mining, we want to move forward in energy, we want to move forward in tourism. . . . Yes, tourism, the NDP hasn't decided whether tourism is important or not in this province."

"Shame, shame, shame!" the crowd responded on cue.

"The NDP brought their budget out and they decided they were going to cut tourism funding," Mr. Campbell said.

"No, no!" came the response from the crowd.

"Then they said they were cutting it back to last year's level but then it's ah, well, ah, we're not really cutting it.

"Well, it seems they're awfully confused about it and that's a shame given it's our second-largest industry in the province."

It wasn't long before Mr. Campbell was wrapping up his speech to the rambunctious chorus of his followers: "Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!"

The Liberals' early message to voters is straightforward: If you want to see your province move forward, vote for them; if you want to see it return to the dark days of Glen Clark and fast ferries, vote NDP. The Liberals are the party of the future; the NDP, the party of the past.

There is also an offshoot of this theme: The Liberals are a party that will tell you what it stands for; the NDP is a party that will tell you only what it stands against.

The Liberals have a vision for British Columbia -- jobs, prosperity, a golden decade -- while the NDP offers nothing but hopeless promises.

Mr. Campbell also made it clear yesterday he plans to sound the alarm over what he says are the dangerous ramifications of the NDP's union-friendly platform.

Ms. James has indicated that if the NDP forms the government, it will make changes to the B.C. Labour Code and also amend legislation that makes education an essential service -- thereby clearing the way for teachers to go on strike for lengthy periods of time.

The Liberal Leader is expected to fully exploit that last proposal at campaign stop after campaign stop. For working parents, the prospect of having to make child-care arrangements for children who are at home because their teachers are on strike isn't a real campaign seller.

Neither are changes to the labour code that Mr. Campbell said would lead to strikes and lockouts around the province -- that after a period of unprecedented labour peace.

According to the Liberal Leader, in 2000 (when the NDP was in office), there were 80 strikes around the province; in 2003 there were eight -- the lowest number since the province began keeping track of these things in 1972.

"And the NDP wants to rip up the labour code that gave us that labour peace," Mr. Campbell said. "And if you're truly for students, how can you not make education an essential service?"

Amid the wild cheering from his supporters at the Langley golf club, Mr. Campbell was heard to say: "This is my kind of crowd."

He was right. And likely the first of many just like it.

gmason@globeandmail.ca

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