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NDP now bets on attack ads to save its bacon

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Now that the undercards have been settled, we can get on to the main event.

Tuesday's byelections in Morris and Arthur-Virden were hardly what you would call compelling opening bouts. Both ridings were Tory before they were vacated; both remained Tory after neither the NDP nor the Liberals could mount much of a challenge.

That is not a criticism of the non-Tories. It was a nearly impossible task for anyone other than the Progressive Conservatives to triumph in ridings that are clearly, decidedly in favour of the current official Opposition.

The cold and, in some areas of southern Manitoba, a continued natural gas blackout certainly didn't help with voter turnout. All in all, and on all sides of the battle, there are few surprised or disappointed at the results.

And with the byelections out of the way, all of Manitoba's registered parties can focus on the main event: the next general election.

Our next provincewide vote is not expected until the spring of 2016. It could come in fall 2015, but if the federal Conservative government calls an election for the fall of 2015, the Manitoba election would be delayed until the following spring.

Regardless of the exact date, the campaign for the next government of Manitoba begins in early February. Actually, Feb. 8 to be exact.

That day, the NDP will unveil at its annual general meeting in Winnipeg a new series of television attack ads designed to take some of the wind from Tory Leader Brian Pallister's sails. Sources confirmed the ads will start immediately after the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which goes the day before the NDP meeting, on Feb. 7.

To date, the NDP has not been active in the attack-ad game. The Tories have fired a number of short advertising volleys at the government over the past three years but, as is tradition, the NDP likes to keep its powder dry and then unleash its ads closer to the campaign proper.

Can ads aimed at Pallister do anything to eat into Tory support and restore the NDP to past glory?

There is always a debate among political strategists about whether attack ads are comfort for core supporters, or whether they can actually persuade uncommitted or loosely attached voters to switch parties. In this case, it appears the NDP is wagering these ads will help slow, if not reverse, the trend that has seen its overall support sink lower than mid-January temperatures.

It would not be unfair to call that hoping against hope.

After nearly 15 years in power, the NDP appears to many voters to be tired, void of new ideas and -- most importantly -- hard to trust after introducing a one-point bump in the PST to fund infrastructure, a measure Premier Greg Selinger had previously, categorically dismissed.

If there is any hope here for the NDP, it is that at this stage in the lead-up to the 2011 election, a barrage of pre-election attack ads helped turn around what appeared to be a hopeless situation.

You may remember that in 2010, then-Tory leader Hugh McFadyen enjoyed robust support in opinion polls. Internal NDP polling at that time confirmed a rather dismal scenario, with support in Winnipeg -- typically an NDP strength -- at dangerously low levels.

Then, about a year out from the October 2011 election, the NDP launched a series of ads designed to define McFadyen as a cheeky, inexperienced politician of dubious moral fibre. The NDP relied heavily on McFadyen's association with the government of premier Gary Filmon in the 1990s, which ultimately collapsed under the weight of concern over ethical transgressions.

In NDP circles, those ads are considered to this day to have been game-changers. The NDP not only won that election but also increased its majority by one seat. However, in terms of total overall votes and popular vote, the election was really quite tight.

The Tories finished with 43.7 per cent of the popular vote, only 2.4 points less than the NDP. The Tories also received just 10,500 votes less than the NDP. All that progress, and yet McFadyen won 19 seats to the NDP's 37. It was an improbable, perhaps impossible scenario to imagine. That makes it also unlikely to be repeated.

In introducing the attack ads, the NDP is only taking a page from a very successful campaign playbook as we head into an election cycle. It's important to note, however, the NDP is doing it much earlier than it has before.

That fact alone should tell voters that although there is reason to believe the NDP can eat into Pallister's base of support with attack ads, it's a much steeper hill, populated by more skeptical voters, this time around.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2014 A5

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