An­i­mos­ity con­geal­ing in PC lead­er­ship race

Tim Hous­ton and Ce­cil Clarke are run­ning one-two on vir­tu­ally all score­cards at this early stage in the race.

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL - Jim Vib­ert

Still wa­ters run deep but don’t be fooled by the ap­par­ent calm of the Tory lead­er­ship race. That’s sur­face ten­sion and just be­neath tor­rents are be­gin­ning to rage.

All war is hell, but civil war is par­tic­u­larly vi­cious, and Nova Sco­tia’s Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives are di­vid­ing into five very un­even armed camps to do bat­tle all sum­mer and into the fall.

The prize is a clean shot at the premier’s of­fice. The win­ner leads a party that, just a year ago, came a few thou­sand flipped votes away from the gov­ern­ment side of the leg­is­la­ture.

The Lib­er­als surged back into a com­fort­able lead in a re­cent poll, but at this stage in Stephen MacNeil’s sec­ond term that’s no in­di­ca­tion of how peo­ple will feel when they next vote. Tories are look­ing for a leader to take them back to the promised land, first chance.

A cou­ple of those con­tenders are chew­ing their tongues raw try­ing to re­main civil. Ev­ery can­di­date needs to be care­ful not to com­pletely alien­ate ri­vals’ sup­port­ers. A first bal­lot win is im­prob­a­ble, so the even­tual win­ner will need help from some of those vot­ers on sub­se­quent bal­lots.

That didn’t stop pre­sumed front-run­ner Tim Hous­ton from get­ting up in Ce­cil Clarke’s face last week­end. Hous­ton’s cam­paign staged a rally in North Syd­ney, Clarke’s home­town, rather than take the event to Syd­ney or any of the other hard-scrab­ble towns that make up old in­dus­trial Cape Bre­ton.

Hous­ton, the MLA from Pic­tou East, and Clarke, Cape Bre­ton Re­gional Mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s mayor, are run­ning one-two on vir­tu­ally all score­cards at this early stage in the race.

El­iz­a­beth Smith-McCrossin, who rep­re­sents Cum­ber­land North, and John Lohr, from Kings North, are vy­ing for third. Smith McCrossin has more po­ten­tial to grow in the later bal­lots than ei­ther of the front-run­ners, while Lohr is build­ing from a solid Val­ley base with a clear con­ser­va­tive mes­sage that sep­a­rates him from the pack.

Julie Chais­son, who ran for the Tories in Ch­ester-St. Mar­garet’s last year, is out­per­form­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and draw­ing at­ten­tion but is the real long shot in the field.

Clarke didn’t let Hous­ton’s in­va­sion of his turf go unan­swered. He fired off a broad­side this week crit­i­cal of Hous­ton’s “bad pol­icy” on mu­nic­i­pal fi­nanc­ing. Clarke’s cri­tique didn’t men­tion Hous­ton by name and the omis­sion ap­peared to be a dis­mis­sive slight given it was ob­vi­ous who Clarke was be­rat­ing.

Like many lead­er­ship con­tests these days, this one breaks into two dis­tinct cam­paigns. Un­til the Sept. 11 dead­line, each camp is try­ing to sign-up new party mem­bers to back their can­di­date, while at­tract­ing ex­ist­ing rank-and-file Tories.

Be­tween Sept. 12 and Oct. 27, it’s still a fight for ev­ery vote, but the elec­torate is es­tab­lished so cam­paigns can fo­cus more, shore up their first bal­lot and try to at­tract later bal­lot sup­port from the ranks of op­po­nents. Tories will ei­ther mail in a pref­er­en­tial bal­lot rank­ing their choices or at­tend the lead­er­ship con­ven­tion at the Halifax Ex­hi­bi­tion Park, Oct. 26-27, where they’ll be able to vote on each bal­lot.

Even this early, the di­vide at the top ap­pears un­breach­able. An­i­mos­ity has con­gealed. Clarke’s sup­port­ers aren’t look­ing at Hous­ton as their sec­ond choice, and Hous­ton’s camp doesn’t ap­pear to be look­ing past the first bal­lot at all.

Un­less those dy­nam­ics change, the door is open to Smith-McCrossin, who seems the most pop­u­lar sec­ond choice, or John Lohr, who is run­ning as the true con­ser­va­tive in the race. Whether that right-of-cen­tre strate­gic po­si­tion­ing will at­tract enough sup­port to pro­pel Lohr to the top re­mains to be seen, but at least he is dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing him­self from his more out­wardly pro­gres­sive op­po­nents.

The lead­ing con­tenders are both po­lar­iz­ing can­di­dates. Unaligned party stal­warts say there is a stop-Hous­ton sen­ti­ment build­ing and a less ve­he­ment anti-Clarke fac­tion. Hous­ton needs to be very near vic­tory on the first bal­lot to win, and al­though Clark seems to have more po­ten­tial to grow, he needs at least a third of the first bal­lot votes if he’s go­ing to make it across the fin­ish line first.

There are grum­blings about strong-arm tac­tics that party mem­bers are feel­ing from Hous­ton’s back­ers in Tory-held rid­ings where MLAs are sup­port­ing Hous­ton.

Clarke, who served in the cab­i­nets of John Hamm and Rod­ney MacDonald a decade back, is be­ing tagged with the “es­tab­lish­ment” la­bel that’s never wel­come, par­tic­u­larly in a party that has lost three straight elec­tions.

With 19 weeks to run in this marathon, the next leader of Nova Sco­tia’s PCs will be the last woman or man stand­ing and job one will be putting the party back to­gether.

“The lead­ing con­tenders are both po­lar­iz­ing can­di­dates. Unaligned party stal­warts say there is a stop-Hous­ton sen­ti­ment build­ing and a less ve­he­ment anti-Clarke fac­tion.” Jim Vib­ert

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