10/21/2012 01:00 EDT | Updated 12/21/2012 05:12 EST

New Brunswick Liberals face youth vs. experience in leadership vote

FREDERICTON - The New Brunswick Liberals were the party that under Frank McKenna's leadership once won every seat in the provincial legislature.

But now they face the same task as their federal cousins: to select a captain who will reinvigorate the party's membership and challenge a majority Tory government.

Next weekend the Liberals will gather in Moncton for a leadership convention they hope will rebuild the party in a province that soundly rejected it two years ago.

The Liberals earned the dubious distinction of becoming the only one-term government in New Brunswick's history after the September 2010 election, resulting in Shawn Graham's resignation as party leader two months later.

"Voters gave us a pretty clear message in the 2010 election," said party president Britt Dysart.

"I think a lot of Liberals across the province decided that we needed to go back to the drawing board and see what we could change and what we could learn from that."

The leadership race is a classic clash of experience versus youth.

Mike Murphy, a Moncton lawyer who served as the minister of health and justice in Graham's government, is hoping to leap back into provincial politics after he quit in January 2010.

At the time, the government was fending off concerns about its proposal to sell the province's public power company to Quebec. The deal failed and the public uproar it generated was a driving force behind the government's downfall.

When he announced his decision to leave public life, he said he was doing so to spend more time with his family — a rationale he also gave when he withdrew his name from a possible run for the top Liberal post in 2001.

But he now says he was upset with the government's direction.

"In the British parliamentary system, when you don't agree with the direction of government you have only one choice, and that is to quietly leave," Murphy said. "That's what I did."

Murphy, 54, said he carries some political baggage but he doesn't believe that's a problem.

"The baggage I have is quite good," he said. "It's lifelong experience, it's working day in and day out, it's raising five children, and it's having been in government and been successful at it."

Brian Gallant represents the other end of the spectrum. At 30, he is the youngest leadership candidate — a factor he says should give him an advantage for a party in need of fresh blood.

"It's going to be important to bring in new people, bring in new ways of doing things, and some new ideas," said Gallant, also a Moncton lawyer.

He ran in 2006 in the riding of Moncton East but lost to Bernard Lord, who won the seat but as premier lost the general election.

Nick Duivenvoorden said he is also vying for the party's crown because he wants to bring a more rural voice to the race.

"In a race like this it's pretty interesting when you get two southern-based lawyers and a full-time farmer from the northern part of the province," he said. "It makes a very eclectic mix."

At 52, Duivenvoorden is new to provincial politics. But he served as mayor of Belledune, a village of 1,500, for eight years.

The race has been a mostly sedate affair, with the candidates rarely crossing swords in their efforts to court support. All three say improving the province's finances and creating jobs are priorities for them.

Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, said Murphy has greater visibility in the province than the other contenders and likely has more resources. But he said it would be a mistake to discount Gallant.

"He doesn't have experience inside the legislative assembly but he represents youth and a different approach," Bateman said.

"As he puts it, he doesn't have any political baggage to haul around, so the vote for the fresh face I think would be for him."

The party has changed its voting system to allow its 19,000 registered members to indicate their first, second and third choices for leader.

It is the same process the British Columbia Liberals used last year to choose Christy Clark as their leader, and it will be employed by the federal Liberals at their leadership convention next year.

The convention is next Saturday.