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NDP's James flying high in B.C. campaign

KITIMAT, B.C.

he looks out the window of her jet, peering down on mountaintops so close you could almost touch them, you wonder what NDP Leader Carole James is thinking.

Alone with her thoughts, does she marvel at how well her B.C. election campaign has gone so far? At these giddy heights, does she even consider the possibility of forming a government next week? Or does she simply think about how much her life is about to change, win or lose?

"To be honest," Ms. James said after landing safely on the ground, "sometimes I look down and think about all the wonderful camping trips I've been on with my husband in some of those forests. We went camping on our honeymoon and roasted hot dogs and drank a wonderful bottle of champagne. We had so much fun."

She stared straight ahead and smiled without parting her lips.

"Who knows when I'll be able to go camping again," she said. "It may be a long time away."

With less than a week to go before British Columbia voters go to the polls, the story of the campaign has been the emergence of Ms. James as a political force, not only in the province but within her own party. A virtual unknown to much of the electorate, Ms. James's name didn't have much cachet in the New Democratic Party either.

This campaign has changed everything.

When you consider that the NDP was all but wiped out in the last election, the fact the party is as close as it is to the incumbent Liberals in the latest polls is astonishing. At the beginning of the campaign, many observers felt the NDP would be lucky to get 20 seats. Now the thinking is that the number could be 30 or higher. Pollster Eva Mustel was quoted yesterday as saying the race may be too close to call. (A poll by her company put the Liberals ahead of the NDP by five points, with a four-point margin of error).

While Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell may not be the most beloved political figure in the province, it's still hard to believe his party has lost as much ground as it seemingly has, given the red-hot state of the economy. Also, you would think the NDP's mostly dismal record in office between 1991 and 2001 would still be fresh in most voters' minds. What the Liberals didn't anticipate was the impact Ms. James would have on the campaign.

And who can blame them?

While she had 10-plus years of political experience at the school board level in Victoria, on the provincial stage she was a neophyte when she won the leadership of the party in November of 2003.

But Ms. James never had to use the built-in excuse for a tepid campaign. It was evident from the beginning she was clearly focused on her party's message, that Mr. Campbell is a mean-spirited leader who had broken his promises to seniors and the disadvantaged, and wasn't going to let anything throw her off track -- not even angry men with bullhorns.

Aides accompanying Ms. James on tour still talk about a campaign stop at Campbell River on Vancouver Island, when a group of protesters angry over the party's position on fish farming showed up. Scott Perchall, Ms. James's press secretary, remembers arriving for the event and seeing the protesters -- mostly large-limbed men -- standing around the podium.

"They were screaming at her through these megaphones," Mr. Perchall recalled in an interview. "It was pretty scary because we have no security with us or anything, and these were big guys. But Carole just smiled at them and walked to the podium and delivered her speech without skipping a beat. I couldn't believe it. She just didn't get rattled at all."

It was interesting to watch Ms. James work a crowd this week in Williams Lake, a north-central logging town. A couple of hundred supporters showed up for a back yard barbecue at the home of a local campaign worker. Fiddle music blasted out from a stereo system. When Ms. James arrived, she wasted no time plunging into the crowd, hugging half the people she met.

Yes, Ms. James is a big hugger. Some have cynically suggested it's a gesture contrived to greater distinguish herself from Mr. Campbell, who has (unfairly, I think) developed a reputation for being remote and cold-hearted. But Ms. James said she was a hugger long before the provincial campaign.

"It's just always been the way I've been," she said. "I get energy from engaging with other people. For me, it's a way to stay real."

Still, it's not hugs that have gotten Ms. James to where she is today. It was one shining moment, one shining hour to be precise, 10 days ago that is mostly responsible for the growing momentum. Her performance in the TV debate truly defined her in this campaign and may, in the end, help her leadership more than she knows.

Even though she interrupted Mr. Campbell too often for the liking of many, Ms. James didn't just hold her own in the first debate -- she came across as smart, focused and unflappable.

"She won the heart of the party that night," Mr. Perchall said.

The truth is that before the election campaign, many in the NDP saw Ms. James as an interim leader, someone to hold things together until the party found that charismatic figure (i.e. Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell) to again lead it to victory. Anything less than 20 seats in this election and the calls for Ms. James's head would have come sooner than later. Some were likely preparing the coup before the election was called.

But the near flawless campaign that Ms. James has waged to this point has likely changed all that. Forget forming government -- if Ms. James leads a strong opposition of 25 to 30 members, she will have the base of support she needs to fight a much tougher battle than the one she's in now, with organized labour.

At some point, Ms. James is going to have to inform union bosses around the province they no longer run the party. That is when we'll see of what Ms. James is really made.

The NDP Leader has been accompanied on the campaign trail by her daughter, Alison, 25, a political science graduate who is serving as her mother's executive assistant. Her responsibilities include looking after all of Ms. James's personal needs as well as guiding her into crowds at campaign stops. Their most important time together, however, happens at the end of the day when, in the quiet of their hotel room, leader and worker become mother and daughter.

"This campaign has been an experience of a lifetime," Ms. James said. "To be able to share something like this with my daughter, who I'm extremely close to, is something we'll both cherish the rest of our lives. It's been unforgettable."

gmason@globeandmail.ca

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