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Tories to pick new premier today at St. John's convention

09/13/2014 07:06 EDT | Updated 11/13/2014 05:59 EST
Newfoundland and Labrador's Progressive Conservatives will fill a St. John's convention hall today to choose the province's next premier and the leader they feel will turn around the party's sagging fortunes and win a fourth straight election next year.

The PCs, who have been in power since Danny Williams led them to a 2003 breakthrough, have been struggling in the polls for more than a year and have had a leadership process that's taken numerous twists since Kathy Dunderdale quit under pressure last January.

Three former cabinet ministers — Paul Davis, Steve Kent and John Ottenheimer — are competing for the leadership, each claiming he has the qualities that will win back disaffected voters who have shifted to the Opposition Liberals.

Even Tom Marshall, who took over as premier in January for what he expected to be a few months, admits the Tories have been fighting fatigue.

"We've been around for [11] years, and usually in that time, people start saying they're looking for change," said Marshall, who plans to retire as soon as the next premier is sworn in.

Well behind Liberals, gap widening

The most recent Corporate Research Associates poll put the Tories at 26 per cent of support among decided voters, far behind the Liberals' 58 per cent.

Moreover, pollster Don Mills said that with the gap widening, there is very little time for the Tories to turn around their ship in time for the next general election. The new premier must call a vote within 12 months of being sworn in.

"It really shows that after 10 years of being government, the Conservatives have really run out of steam in Newfoundland and Labrador," Mills, CRA's president, said in an interview last week.

The party has lost three consecutive byelections to the Liberals, losing seats that had been held by Dunderdale and two of her former top ministers.

Mistakes acknowledged

Nonetheless, each candidate for the leadership has insisted that he is up to the challenge and can bring about change while also acknowledging that the governing party has made mistakes.

Tory insiders say the front-runners are Davis, 53, a former officer with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary who entered provincial politics in 2010, and Ottenheimer, 61, a lawyer who served as health minister under Danny Williams and who had left politics in 2007.

Kent, 36, may play a pivotal role at the convention, should the voting go to a second ballot. Although he had only been in cabinet for nine months, he has been an elected politician since he was 19. He served as mayor of Mount Pearl before moving to the legislature.

During a series of debates in the last two weeks, few if any sparks flew between the three contenders, with a polite decorum setting the tone for the race.

Unusual route to convention floor

The route that the Tories have taken to the convention floor has been an unusual one. After Dunderdale quit — amid a caucus defection and a public outcry over her handling of power outages in early January — not a single member of the Tory caucus stepped forward to run when a leadership race was called.

Instead, three outsiders stepped up. Howley councillor Wayne Bennett was ejected over comments that some Tories felt were offensive while Corner Brook seafood processor Bill Barry quit before Easter while complaining that the race had been fixed.

That was because most insiders were backing Frank Coleman, a soft-spoken Corner Brook businessman. Despite having no experience with elected politics, Coleman was poised to become premier at a convention that had been set for early July.

Weeks before the convention, though, Coleman withdrew, citing a crisis involving a member of his family.

After the Tories scrambled to organize a new race, Davis, Kent and Ottenheimer prepared leadership bids.

Memorial University political scientist Steve Tomblin said the party faces a steep climb to regain the trust of voters and that he worries the winner of the convention will use taxpayer dollars to speed up the journey.

"We have politicians who are now in positions of power who are really kind of desperate to mobilize public opinion," he said.

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