04/29/2013 09:22 EDT

BC Leaders Debate On CBC: Stakes Are High


The four leaders of British Columbia’s main parties will square off tonight in a televised leaders’ debate, perhaps the best opportunity any of them will have to make their pitch to B.C. voters.

Adrian Dix, leader of the NDP, and BC Liberal leader Christy Clark have the most at stake tonight – but Dix has the most to lose. As the frontrunner, every minute behind a microphone or in front of a camera is one where he risks saying something that could lose him support.

In person, Dix comes off much more as a policy wonk than does Clark, and his relatively unpolished demeanour may make him seem less of the threat to the province than the Liberals are desperately trying to make him out to be. He will need to portray himself as a responsible future premier of British Columbia, and a low-key performance may do just that. He did demonstrate a little uneasiness when challenged in a radio debate and post-debate scrums last week, but the experience may have given him and his handlers the chance to prepare better responses to some of the attack lines that Clark took.

First among those was Dix’s changing position on the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Clark used it to try to portray Dix as anti-business and as an untrustworthy flip-flopper, and he will need to have a better explanation tonight. All eyes will be on him as the presumptive next premier of the province.

With only two weeks remaining in the campaign, a persistently large margin between Clark’s party and the NDP, and her personal numbers still abysmal, there is little that Clark can do in tonight’s debate to single-handedly turn things around. Her single biggest advantage, is that she is the most comfortable and experienced public speaker of all four leaders.

She will continue to hit at the New Democrats, hint that they have a hidden agenda, and attempt to starkly contrast her party with the NDP. But with so many British Columbians disapproving of her performance of premier, disbelieving her claims that the budget is balanced, and agreeing that it is time for a change, many of her punches may not land.

By comparison, the stakes are quite low for the Conservative leader John Cummins and Green leader Jane Sterk. Although, from the perspective of their own parties’ goals, the stakes could not be higher. With smaller budgets, organizations and media presence, the two party leaders will not have a better chance to get their message out.

Sterk had a strong performance in the radio debate, and will need to build on that tonight. Her main objective will be to solidify whatever support she already has in the region in and around Victoria, and attract new voters that could put her party over the top in a handful of ridings. If she does not have a strong performance, and if Dix does, she could torpedo a few of her candidates’ chances for election.

Cummins will have a more difficult task. While Sterk can bank on a base of support that gets behind environmental issues and the idea of giving these issues a voice in the legislature, Cummins needs to attract those voters who are not only unhappy with the Liberal government, but who also either consider an NDP victory a lesser evil or are convinced that there is nothing to stop Dix from becoming the province’s next premier.

If Cummins has any hopes to get more than marginal support and to win a seat or two, he will have to present himself as a non-threatening voice from the right. The problem he has had with the controversial comments of a few candidates echoes the one Danielle Smith had as Wildrose leader in Alberta in last year’s election. His swift reaction to it, however, could help. He also has a lot of experience in politics under his belt (he is a former Conservative MP) and a good grasp of his important files.

No one will be hoping for a strong performance from Cummins more than Adrian Dix. Every Liberal vote that Cummins earns will be one that cannot be used to defeat an NDP candidate.

But if Clark puts up a good fight and if both Cummins and Dix fail to impress, she could narrow the gap in public support. While there is always a lot of exaggerated talk of a need for a knock-out victory in a leaders’ debate, there are few cases where one is needed so badly as tonight. If Dix holds his own, he should be able to coast until May 14.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers twice weekly, mostly Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of , covering Canadian politics, polls, and electoral projections.

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