Winnipeg's conservative-affiliated mayoral candidates traded accusations and denials in the aftermath of poll results placing Judy Wasylycia-Leis well out in front.
Earlier this week, polls by Winnipeg's Probe Research and Forum in Toronto suggested the former NDP MP and MLA has the support of more than one-third of voters, while lawyers Gord Steeves and Brian Bowman -- both of whom have Tory ties -- are running neck-and-neck in second place, each with approximately one-fifth of the vote.
In a statement Thursday evening, Steeves suggested "Wasylycia-Leis can only be defeated with one right-of-centre candidate in the mayoral race."
This prompted Conservative-affiliated Coun. Paula Havixbeck, running fifth according to the polls, to issue an angry tweet about ignoring "that bully Steeves."
Bowman held a Friday morning news conference to condemn Steeves' plea as cynical -- and said it's the second attempt by the former St. Vital councillor to persuade him not to run for mayor.
"I believe it's sad when a politician believes the only way they can win is by cutting a backroom deal," Bowman said at his Portage Avenue campaign office. "This reeks of old-school politics in the worst way."
Bowman said in October 2013, one week before Steeves announced his mayoral run, he was invited to meet his rival for a drink at Hy's Steakhouse & Cocktail Bar at Portage & Main.
Over a glass of water and a beer, Bowman said Steeves asked him not to run for mayor. "He asked, and I declined," Bowman said. "That's something that is not in the cards."
Bowman said if Steeves feels so strongly about only one candidate representing the centre-right, "he can do the honourable thing and step down."
Hours later, at a news conference of his own, Steeves denied Bowman's version of what transpired at Hy's in October. Steeves said he approached Bowman for his support before he was aware the other lawyer -- who had openly talked about running for months -- was planning a campaign.
Steeves said he isn't encouraging Bowman or Havixbeck to drop out. He said voters who dislike the NDP must coalesce around one centre-right candidate if Wasylycia-Leis is to be defeated.
"I'm clearly in second place," said Steeves, ignoring poll results suggesting he and Bowman are virtually tied for second. "For me to become the mayor of Winnipeg, I have to consolidate my base of support. I really meant nothing more than that."
Bowman said Steeves cannot win the mayoral race by taking "far right" positions such as the ones espoused during the past month. Bowman said he does not know if Steeves, a former Liberal, even believes what he is saying.
Bowman also said Wasylycia-Leis is running too far on the left and lacks the leadership experience to be mayor.
"Sitting on the opposition benches and touting the party line, as Judy has done, is not leadership," said Bowman, who vowed earlier in his campaign not to attack other candidates.
Bowman claimed he has the momentum to win the race because he is the only candidate in the top three whose support is increasing. Months ago, he was polling at six per cent.
Describing himself as a "fiscally conservative, socially progressive" candidate, Bowman said he can attract more undecided voters than either Steeves or Wasylycia-Leis, although he acknowledged he appeals primarily to Liberal and Progressive Conservative voters.
The Probe poll suggested fourth-place candidate, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, is the second choice of Wasylycia-Leis supporters, indicating Bowman would have trouble drawing votes from the left.
Fifth-place candidate Havixbeck, meanwhile, announced and then cancelled a Friday morning news conference in response to Steeves' statement. She later promised via text message to comment at a "later time to be determined by campaign."