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Leadership races both entering important phase

The Liberal and NDP races are both finally under way, but much of the work right now is behind the scenes, as candidates scramble to sign up new party members who will support them.

The Liberal and NDP races are both finally under way, but much of the work right now is behind the scenes, as candidates scramble to sign up new party members who will support them.

That’s critical, especially for the New Democrat hopefuls. Their leadership ballot is April 17; to be able to vote, people have to be party members by Jan. 17. The Liberal contest is Feb. 26, but anyone who joins by Feb. 4 will be able to vote

So the serious candidates and their camps are rushing to sign up new members. A few thousand new party members - if they vote - could tip the balance.

It’s striking how much the leadership campaigns have come to resemble election campaigns, with pollsters, full-time staff and - paid or not - and tightly scripted agendas.

It’s also striking, especially on the Liberal side, how important lobbyists and government relations consultants are to the candidates’ efforts.

The practitioners increasingly move from lobbying politicians to helping them raise money or win elections or leadership races and then back to lobbying the same politicians.

Take the well-connected Progressive Group. The firm’s Patrick Kinsella, of B.C. Rail fame, is helping Christy Clark.

Mark Jiles, also of the Progressive Group, is assisting George Abbott’s campaign, as is Sarah Weddell of National Public Relations, another company that sells companies advice on getting government to see things their way.

And the emails I get from Kevin Falcon’s campaign come from the Pace Group. Norman Stowe, its managing partner is supporting Falcon; the company’s vice-president for media relations is handling communications for the leadership contest. The Pace Group has millions of dollars worth of government contracts and advises others on dealing with governments.

And it’s striking how much money these campaigns will cost. The New Democrats have set a campaign spending limit of $175,000 for candidates; the Liberals are rumoured to be imposing a $450,000 limit per candidate.

The parties also differ on donations.

The New Democrats have set a $2,500 limit on contributions. The idea is that large donations can create real or perceived conflicts of interest - that a successful candidate will be indebted to big backers, or that shape his actions to suit them.

The Liberals have no limits. A single business, for example, could entirely fund the campaign of the leadership candidate of its choice.

Both parties have to live by the Elections Act, which requires public disclosure of donations.

But the New Democrats have added a useful refinement. Candidates will have to publicly report all donations of more than $250 before party members vote.

That’s a much more meaningful measure. If the sources of a candidates’ cash cause concern, members will have a chance to ask questions and consider the issue before voting.

Once the membership sign-up deadlines are past, the leadership candidates will turn to courting the current party faithful, setting out a platform that differentiates them from their rivals and trying to show they are popular enough to win the next election.

The last task is important. It’s one thing to appeal to people already in your party’s camp. But most sensible party members will be looking for candidate who can win the next election, not one who offers the prospect of a noble defeat.

At this point, that might be good news for George Abbott, particularly if Christy Clark and Kevin Falcon end up running hard against each other and raise the fear of divisions in the party.

It’s harder to figure out which New Democrat offers the best prospects for electoral success. John Horgan, Mike Farnworth and, likely, Adrian Dix, are credible candidates. (Harry Lali and Nicholas Simons are unlikely likely to persuade Liberal voters that they offer a better plan for the province.)

And none of the main NDP candidates represents renewal - Dix, Farnworth, Horgan and Lali are all associated with the discredited New Democrat government of the 1990s.

Footnote: The challenge for candidates in both parties is to stake out a distinctive position without attacking other hopefuls.

That’s important both to keep the party united and because no candidate is likely to get a majority on the first ballot; alienating supporters of other candidates could be costly.