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OPINION: Election campaign is getting personal

The election writ won’t even be issued until next week, but already the two major parties appear to have revealed – via TV advertising – the main thrust of their key campaign message to voters. The B.C.

The election writ won’t even be issued until next week, but already the two major parties appear to have revealed – via TV advertising – the main thrust of their key campaign message to voters.

The B.C. Liberals have clearly adopted the old political phrase that “it’s the economy, stupid” as the underpinning of its appeal to voters. Everything boils down to creating jobs for as many people as possible and to keeping taxes low.

The NDP, on the other hand, are starting off in an aggressive attack mode. Three short television ads debut this week, and all zero in on Premier Christy Clark in very personal terms (her party is only mentioned once, and even then is called “Christy Clark’s Liberals.”)

The contrast to the NDP’s 2013 election campaign could not be clearer. Back then, the party barely mentioned their opponents and ran a campaign that lacked focus or emotion.

But now it appears the New Democrats will relentlessly go after Clark on issues that frame her as a protector of the interests of the wealthy (all three ads feature a photograph headshot of her being showered with cash).

I expect this tone will continue for at least the early part of the 28-day campaign, and the week leading up to it. Don’t be surprised to see NDP leader John Horgan spending the first 10 days or so “prosecuting” Clark by name and over issues such as political fundraising, tax cuts for wealthy people, and various scandals and controversies.

I’ll be surprised if the B.C. Liberals respond in kind with harsh attacks on Horgan, at least not directly. There are third-party advertisers who are already launching those attacks, including one ad that suggests the NDP leader wants to embrace the far-left and far-green “Leap Manifesto.”

The B.C. Liberals will undoubtedly try to argue, after having made the case that the province’s economy is chugging along because of their stewardship, that an NDP government would wreck economic growth and kill jobs.

 And just as the NDP ads focus on her, the B.C. Liberals’ theme will be very much wrapped around Clark’s personality.

Clark is clearly a polarizing figure. She elicits a visceral, negative reaction from core NDP supporters but at the same time galvanizes B.C. Liberal supporters or those who can’t bring themselves to ever vote for the NDP.

Both sides are betting their view of her matches the view the majority of voters have of her.

But attacks can only take the NDP so far. One of the problems that comes from being in Opposition so long is being associated with relentless negativity, which doesn’t woo voters.

The NDP strategy in this campaign appears to mirror the one it used in the 1996 election, when it demonized B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell. Their television ads featured a grey, glowering and menacing picture of him as a voice-of-doom narrator talked of all the dire things Campbell would do if he became premier.

And back then the NDP ran a campaign based on a kind of class warfare approach, linking “Howe Street millionaires” and the banks to Campbell and his party. The party’s television ads running this week certainly try to tie Clark to the moneyed class.

The NDP won that election due solely to a serious split on the right, as the B.C. Reform party took a lot of potential support from the B.C. Liberals to allow the NDP to squeak in, even though it got fewer votes (it may be useful for New Democrats to take note that their share of the popular vote in 1996, after that relentlessly negative campaign, actually declined from the 1991 election).

At some point the NDP will have to present a more positive message to voters, one that clearly outlines specifically what it will do help people and doesn’t just attack Clark.

And while Clark can cause sparks to fly in either direction, Horgan is still an unknown figure to most people. He’ll have to put on his political salesman’s hat at some point, and depart from the attack mode.

But until then, expect the next couple of weeks to be a rough and bruising time in B.C. politics. Things are about to get very loud, and very personal.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.

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