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Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals get set to crown new leader this weekend

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Liberals choosing a new provincial party leader in St. John's this weekend are buoyed by recent polls that suggest they may be naming the next premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"It should be a wake-up call and a shot across the bow of the Tory government that we are no longer in the political wilderness," said candidate Paul Antle. "We are here with a vengeance. We are going to provide a very serious alternative to the current government.

"And they are now on notice."

The Harvard-educated businessman, who many observers say is a strong challenger to perceived front-runner and former interim Liberal leader Dwight Ball, is one of five contenders.

Antle is not just spinning partisan bluster, said Stephen Tomblin, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

"I think the government is really in trouble," he said of the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Kathy Dunderdale.

"Their communication skills have been lacking in the past and I think that's really going to be the essential issue.

"They're going to have to change this attitude that I think people perceive that they have — that they don't care, and that the public doesn't matter."

Polls could change drastically before the next provincial election in October 2015, Tomblin said.

But for the first time in a decade mostly dominated by the Tories under the wildly popular former premier Danny Williams, the Liberals are topping public opinion surveys.

The government's approval ratings have plunged since Williams quit politics late in 2010, leaving a leadership chasm that Dunderdale has tried to fill.

The decline is despite stellar economic forecasts driven by multibillion-dollar offshore oil and mining projects. And it has much to do with nagging questions about Dunderdale's defence of access-to-information restrictions and doubts about the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydro project now under construction in Labrador, Tomblin said.

Tories were also vilified for a spring budget that cut 1,200 jobs and projected a $564-million deficit this fiscal year. The shortfall was blamed on overly optimistic oil price predictions and reduced oil and mineral earnings due to the global economic slump.

Still, Dunderdale dismissed with a smile any threat of Liberal momentum.

"This is their sixth or seventh leadership we've been through with the Liberals since 2003," she said Thursday outside the legislature. "So, no, I can't say that I'm getting super excited about it or perturbed about it."

Time will tell if the Liberals, saddled with a $1-million party debt, will reorganize and emerge as a credible alternative, Tomblin said.

Liberals have been voting all week and have until noon Sunday to rank their choices among five candidates: Ball, Antle and businesswoman Cathy Bennett are widely considered to be the top contenders. Also running are Danny Dumaresque, who was a Liberal government member under former premier Clyde Wells, and current Liberal Opposition member Jim Bennett.

Each candidate paid $20,000 to join the four-month race.

Ball said he repeatedly heard from voters that perceived information blocking is a "lightning rod" for Dunderdale's administration.

"People are now asking for change because they did want a government that was truly open and truly transparent."

About 37,000 people signed up as Liberal members or supporters to vote online or by telephone in a one-person, one-vote electronic system. They were to rank the candidates by preference with the first results expected by mid-afternoon Sunday.

It's a weighted process allotting 100 points to each of 48 provincial districts. For example, if a candidate is the top choice of 20 per cent of voters in a district on the first count, he or she wins 20 points. Any candidate who gets 2,401 points in the first tabulation wins, but such a landslide victory is not expected Sunday.

On a second count, the candidate with the lowest number of points and/or anyone receiving less than five per cent of total points on the first count is dropped. Their points are then redistributed to the remaining contenders according to the second choice selected on those ballots.

The process is repeated until someone is declared leader with at least 2,401 points.

One personal identification number for each registered voter was to be assigned to help guard against multiple votes but there were reports this week of some supporters not receiving one, and others getting more than one.

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