Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New blood or old guard?

Provincial Grits to pick new leader

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Will provincial Liberals play it safe, or will they take a risk on a fresh face who could potentially propel them to their biggest electoral gains in a generation?

Those questions will be top of mind as party members gather at the Fort Garry Hotel Saturday to select a new leader to replace the departing Jon Gerrard.

On the one hand, there is that familiar Liberal name of Axworthy.

Bob Axworthy, 59, brother of former federal Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, has been a party member since he was 14 and has helped the provincial Grits develop much of their platform. For the past two years, he's worked closely with Gerrard as a strategist and speech writer.

On the other hand, there is 35-year-old lawyer Rana Bokhari, a relative political neophyte who managed to sell more than 600 party memberships before the cutoff for this week's convention vote, and who has made no bones about the fact the Liberals need a shakeup.

In the middle is Dougald Lamont, 44, a small business owner who has worked mainly in the background on federal and provincial Liberal campaigns -- although he did run in 2003 in St. Boniface, finishing a distant second to Greg Selinger.

Kelly Saunders, a Brandon University political scientist, said with NDP support flagging, there's great potential for a new Liberal leader to capture a significant percentage of that vote in the next election.

"We know that NDP (support) typically bleeds to the Liberals," Saunders said.

The fundamental question is, does the party go with an establishment candidate -- Axworthy and to a lesser extent Lamont -- or does it take a bit of a risk and "try something new and different?" she asked.

"(Bokhari) is a new fresh face for the party and a new fresh face for Manitobans" who could appeal to urban and disaffected voters, Saunders said.

The first-generation Canadian, who has stressed the need to build the party's membership and war chest, is conscious of her strengths.

"I believe that having a fresh face and new ideas is what Manitoba needs right now. And I think that having somebody like me in this role would shake up the other parties as well," she said during the campaign.

Still, the betting of some observers is that many Liberals will get cold feet on Saturday and elect Axworthy as leader -- likely on the second ballot. But who knows? Lamont, owner of a communications consultancy and ad agency, in true Liberal fashion, may sneak up the middle and capture the prize.

Axworthy, who filed his nomination papers just before the deadline, expressed confidence this week about his chances. He has the most political experience and the greatest number of high-profile Liberal endorsements.

"I think I'm going to win," he proclaimed before quickly adding that "you just don't know until voting day."

Lamont said there is a feeling among Liberals that the next election represents "the best opportunity for the party since 1988," when, under Sharon Carstairs, it won 20 seats and formed the official Opposition.

"There's a lot of frustration in the sense that we could be doing better," he said of the mood of Manitobans. "People don't feel like they're being listened to."

However, whether Liberal fortunes are about to rise is an open question. The selection of a leader is important. But so, too, is whether traditional voting patterns that give the party a boost during tough NDP times continue to hold true.

A Probe Research poll released earlier this month pins provincial NDP support at 29 per cent and Liberal support at 20 per cent -- up substantially from the 7.5 per cent of the vote the Grits recorded in the last election.

University of Manitoba political scientist Royce Koop isn't convinced the Liberals will retain the NDP protest vote.

"There are places where people can park their vote in between elections and feel good about it," he said of the Liberal bump in the polls.

"But when the election actually comes, then people tend to move back to the other parties."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2013 A9


Updated on Friday, October 25, 2013 at 1:25 PM CDT: Corrects background sidebar.

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