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Campbell shifts to attack mode To counter slippage in the polls, Liberal Leader resumes diatribe against NDP, GARY MASON writes

To counter slippage in the polls, Liberal Leader resumes diatribe against NDP, GARY MASON writes

In an attempt to halt the momentum gained by the New Democratic Party from last week's televised leaders debate, front-runner Gordon Campbell has dusted off an old script to see him down the home stretch of the B.C. election.

After promising a positive campaign that would focus on the achievements of his Liberal government over the past four years, Mr. Campbell recently abandoned that approach. He now appears to be trying to spook people into voting for his party by recalling assorted NDP blunders and scandals, some stretching back as far as 30 years.

According to sources, internal polling done by the NDP in the days immediately after the television debate showed that the eight-point lead the Liberals had for much of the campaign had slipped a point or two. As important, a significant percentage of those who were leaning toward the Liberals earlier moved back into the undecided camp.

Liberal polling has apparently confirmed much the same, which would explain the rather dramatic shift in Mr. Campbell's tone on the campaign trail.

Yesterday, he tried out his new pitch on listeners across the province tuning into a radio debate. Always extremely well prepared, Mr. Campbell appeared more relaxed the second time around and did not allow NDP Leader Carole James to dominate the debate as she did the first one.

Most pundits agreed the radio debate was pretty much a draw, certainly between the two main combatants. Green Party Leader Adriane Carr had another strong showing, much to the consternation of the NDP.

Ms. James knows all too well what can happen when voters use the Greens to protest their unhappiness with the mainstream choices. The Green vote was blamed for her narrow loss as an NDP candidate in the 2001 provincial election.

The story of the B.C. election campaign right now, however, is the attack mode Mr. Campbell has moved into with one week left.

In his opening statement in the radio debate, Mr. Campbell said British Columbians could jeopardize the No. 1 economy in the country if they vote NDP. Then he launched into a diatribe you might have heard from him at any campaign stop four years ago.

"The leader of the NDP has said this election is about trust," Mr. Campbell said. "Well, I think that's true. Would you really trust the party that took almost $1-million from charities and still hasn't paid it back? Do you really trust the party made up of the same old cabinet ministers from Glen Clark's government of the 1990s to move the province forward? Do you really trust a leader who ran on the NDP's record of the 1990s and today is running from it?"

The $1-million in charity money to which Mr. Campbell alluded was a reference to the NDP's infamous Bingogate scandal, which had its origins in the 1970s. It wasn't until the NDP was in office in the 1990s that the full scope of the scandal became known and it was discovered that the NDP-linked Nanaimo Commonwealth Holding Society had been skimming money from charity bingos it held throughout the 1970s and diverting it to party coffers.

Later in the debate, Mr. Campbell reminded listeners that one of the candidates running for the NDP in this election was the "same person who faked a memo in the Casinogate affair."

He was referring to Adrian Dix, former chief of staff to Glen Clark, who got into trouble in the late 1990s for backdating a memo connected with the casino licence scandal that eventually brought his boss down.

Mr. Campbell didn't stop there. He went on to warn voters that a quarter of the NDP's candidates in the election had links to some kind of organized union, which apparently showed the party continued to be a toady of big labour. Mr. Campbell also referred to candidates in this campaign who were former NDP cabinet ministers with links to colossal debacles such as the purchase of two fast ferries, a mistake that cost B.C. taxpayers more than $460-million.

And when the Liberal Leader wasn't attempting to put Ms. James on the defensive for the past sins of her party, he had backup support from a number of callers reading from the same script. (Neither side was denying they had supporters lined up to call into the leaders -- Liberal callers were simply far more successful at getting through.)

It was an unrelenting attack.

For her part, Ms. James handled the barrage from her opponent without much trouble. However, it was certainly a bumpier ride than the one she received during the television debate. But the NDP Leader didn't come close to losing her cool at any point in the debate, further cementing her growing reputation as a poised, measured and thoroughly modern politician.

Afterward, Mr. Campbell defended his shift to a more old-style, bare-knuckle type campaign, saying the timing was right to remind people of the NDP's record while in office. Ms. James said the shift in tone from the Campbell side betrayed some desperation in the Liberal camp.

As it turns out, they both might be right.

gmason@globeandmail.ca

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