ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — If Newfoundland and Labrador isn't the ultimate political wasteland for federal Conservatives, it's inhospitably close. The famous friendliness of this most easterly province pretty much evaporates when it comes to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In the capital of St. John's, Johnny Ruth & Living Planet is a clothing and custom T-shirt store that has for years displayed designs based on Second World War public outreach campaigns. "He volunteered to stop Harper," says one featuring a pretty woman embracing a sailor. Another shows a soldier leading a charge. It urges: "Come on Canada! Fight the Conservatives!" "They're a hot seller," said Kim Winsor, co-owner of the business. Just one of the province's seven seats went Conservative in the last federal election in 2011 as Peter Penashue eked out a surprise victory over Liberal incumbent Todd Russell in Labrador. Penashue later resigned over illegitimate campaign expenses, asking voters to give him another chance in a subsequent byelection. He lost to the Liberal challenger. His former official agent has now been charged under the Canada Elections Act. Penashue is running again. As it stands, Liberals hold four seats in Newfoundland and Labrador, while the NDP has two. Independent MP Scott Andrews, who left the Liberal caucus last March after being suspended for alleged sexual misconduct involving another MP, represents the riding of Avalon southwest of St. John's. Andrews has accused Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of "unprofessional" actions which, the MP maintained in a mailing last spring to constituents, denied him fair process or defence. Andrews maintains the allegations against him were never substantiated and is running as an Independent. Liberal Gerry Byrne is not running again in the renamed riding of Long Range Mountains, most of what used to be Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte. Byrne plans to seek a provincial seat in November. Political scientist Kelly Blidook of Memorial University of Newfoundland said Avalon was likely the best shot the Conservatives had in the province in the Oct. 19 election. That was before party brass made headlines and baffled supporters by snubbing Ches Crosbie, a successful lawyer and son of outspoken former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister John Crosbie, as a candidate. John Crosbie colourfully lambasted the rejection as a disgraceful affront to democracy. He said his son was told the rebuff had to do with some fun the younger Crosbie poked at Harper last spring during a satirical bit of theatre for a fundraiser. Ches Crosbie declined a request for an interview. However, he told CBC he couldn't reveal the reason for his rejection, saying he was bound by a confidentiality agreement. He went on to say he was stunned by the move, which he said has left some local Tories so angry they have decided to sit out the election campaign. "They feel quite unhappy about this," he said. "There's no apparent reason for it." Blidook said Avalon would have been a tough fight for the Tories even with such a credible candidate. "By rejecting him, it just makes people a little more skeptical, a little more concerned about what exactly is going on in Ottawa or what exactly is going on with Stephen Harper." Provincial disdain for the prime minister can be traced to myriad factors, Blidook said. They include the perceived reneging of federal fishery funding under the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, and the closure of a maritime rescue sub-centre in St. John's. But Blidook said the most damaging anti-Conservative sentiment stems from Danny Williams. The hugely popular former premier aimed his ABC (Anything But Conservative) campaign at Harper in 2008 as payback for what Williams said was a broken promise to protect offshore oil earnings from equalization clawbacks. David Coletto, chief executive officer of Abacus Data, summed up Conservative chances this way: "Not good at all." A big question is the extent to which recent momentum since the stunning New Democrat win in Alberta will erode Liberal support nationally, Coletto said He'll be closely watching the race between incumbent NDP MP Ryan Cleary and Liberal challenger Seamus O'Regan in St. John's South-Mount Pearl, as well as the Avalon. Polls there will be among the first to report on election night and could signal what's to come across the country, he said. "If the NDP picks up Avalon and holds St. John's South-Mount Pearl, they're likely going to have a good night."
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