10/10/2011 10:32 EDT | Updated 12/10/2011 05:12 EST

Kathy Dunderdale To Become First Woman Premier Elected In Newfoundland


ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Expectations weren't exactly high when Kathy Dunderdale became the hand-picked replacement for one of the most popular premiers Canada has ever seen.

"One of the greatest challenges is going to be that I'm not Danny Williams," she said last December as her force-of-nature boss suddenly quit politics in Newfoundland and Labrador to resume his business career.

"However, I'm confident that I'll make my own mark."

Those last words could turn out to be prescient. Recent polls signal that Dunderdale, 59, is poised to make history Tuesday as she tries to become the first woman elected to the province's top political job.

It would be a sweet triumph for the daughter of a Burin Peninsula fisherman, one of 11 children, who was only supposed to lead the Progressive Conservatives until an heir apparent stepped up to fill the chasm Williams left.

No one did. Dunderdale declared within weeks that, with the backing of her cabinet and caucus, she would run for the leadership.

She was crowned unchallenged last spring at a Tory convention that was to include a tribute dinner for Williams. He skipped the event in what was the first of a few perceived snipes at his successor for reasons that haven't been publicly clarified.

Williams has cryptically referred to a distancing of the Dunderdale administration from him, but little else.

Dunderdale has refused to discuss the subject. She made it clear when the campaign started three weeks ago, however, that she would not be seeking help from Williams on the hustings.

Nor has she appeared to need it. Dunderdale could hardly have seemed more the relaxed frontrunner on Saturday as she boarded her big blue campaign bus for one last trip to shore up Tory support outside St. John's.

The mother of two and grandmother of four cuts a svelte, confident figure these days. She is about 100 pounds lighter than she was a year ago after becoming a committed early-morning runner who shuns refined sugars in favour of fruits, non-starchy vegetables and wild rice.

During a speech to party faithful in what could be a tight race in the riding of Port de Grave, Dunderdale spoke without notes as she has in districts around the province. During stops at Tim Hortons, a grocery store and a shopping mall, she glad-handed with the assurance of someone at ease in her own skin.

Dunderdale has been in some heated exchanges with voters upset over issues ranging from the struggling fishery to construction jobs. But the former natural resources minister who took part in notoriously tough talks with Big Oil on multibillion-dollar projects off Newfoundland did not flinch or lose her cool.

Still, Dunderdale says she must clear the hurdle of Tuesday's election to validate her leadership and set what she hopes will be an eight-year course as premier.

"I've been supported by the cabinet and the caucus. I've been supported by the people within our party. But the real legitimacy comes from the people of the province, and that's the test I need to pass on Tuesday."

The NDP's Lorraine Michael has promised to redistribute the province's oil wealth as she tries to get more New Democrats elected than ever before. The NDP's previous record for the number of seats it has held in the legislature is two.

The Liberals led by Kevin Aylward — who took over after Yvonne Jones stepped aside as leader this summer for health reasons — believe they are poised to make gains in Labrador and central Newfoundland.

Pollsters and political watchers have noted what appears to be a growing yen in the province for a stronger opposition.

Progressives Conservatives have a chance Tuesday to win their third straight majority government since 2003.

There were 43 Tories in the legislature compared to four Liberals and one New Democrat at dissolution.

Dunderdale herself says she has never shied from the kind of balanced debate that is healthy for democracy.

Rosalie Squires of Paradise, just outside St. John's, was shopping in Bay Roberts as Dunderdale's entourage swept through a local mall Saturday. She is especially worried about Tory plans for the $6.2 billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador.

"My concern is the cost of it down the road," she said of potential cost overruns. "If it's going to take 50 years to pay off, that's a terrible debt load to put on the province and our next generation.

"Even if the (Progressive Conservatives) get in, if we could elect a good opposition to it, then we may be able to salvage the whole deal. But a runaway government is a runaway with your money."

The Liberal party has most vocally opposed Tory plans for Muskrat Falls, saying the project isn't needed or economically viable. Aylward has also spent much of the campaign in rural regions dependent on the struggling fishing and forestry sectors.

Dunderdale has defended Muskrat Falls as the lowest cost option to meet growing power needs in the province over time. She has also stressed that the Tories have racked up successive surplus budgets while whittling provincial debt to about $8.2 billion from $12 billion — thanks mostly to the offshore oil and mining sectors.

Lucrative oil production is on the downturn, however, and the province is forecast to run deficits when payments from the 1985 Atlantic Accord run out next year.

Cash from the joint offshore program with Ottawa was expected to put about $536 million in provincial coffers this fiscal year.

Dunderdale could face these and other challenges in the months and years ahead if the Tories are successful in their bid for another majority government.

But Tory volunteer Billy Worthman of Heart's Delight, N.L., said he is impressed with how she has come into her own.

"Coming after Danny Williams, she had huge shoes to fill but she has done a great job, and I think she'll be a great premier."