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Signs bode poorly for Tories

Nomination turnout another boon for Grits

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Jim Carr celebrates after winning the Winnipeg South Centre Liberal nomination Monday night.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Jim Carr celebrates after winning the Winnipeg South Centre Liberal nomination Monday night. Photo Store

To find truth in politics, it's often instructive to focus more on the battle and less on the result.

Another case in point: On Monday night, former Manitoba Business Council head Jim Carr won a first-ballot victory to become the Liberal candidate in the federal riding of Winnipeg South Centre.

Carr was opposed by Karen Taraska-Alcock, widow of the former cabinet minister Reg Alcock, and provincial political staffer Maurice Alexander. With three candidates vying for the nomination in such a key riding, this was a gathering that had both practical and symbolic importance for the once-great party.

All in all, it was hardly a shocking result. Party insiders had Carr and Taraska-Alcock running neck and neck in terms of selling memberships. However, Carr came into the race carrying what appeared to be an unofficial endorsement from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. Whether that was true -- and there was some doubt Trudeau preferred any one candidate -- the mere suggestion turned out to be more than Taraska-Alcock and Alexander could handle.

And yet, remember what is significant here is not necessarily the result, but rather the number of people who turned up to vote.

Official results were not released, but sources indicated 1,456 votes were cast at the meeting. That was 70 per cent of the estimated 2,100 party members eligible to vote.

That turnout -- reportedly the most-attended Grit nomination meeting anywhere in Canada to date -- is a fairly clear sign the political sands in Manitoba are shifting.

There is no foolproof way to predict the outcome of an election that is still 16 months off. However, there are small, nuanced signs observers use to handicap the combatants. Turnout at nomination meetings is certainly one of those key signs.

The Liberals have a very strong affinity for this riding. South Centre was the undisputed property of one of Manitoba's longest-serving and most influential Liberal MPs, Lloyd Axworthy. It was a riding that, regardless of national poll results or regional proclivities, could be counted on to go Liberal.

That changed in 2011 when veteran MP Anita Neville lost to Tory Joyce Bateman. It wasn't a rout -- Bateman triumphed by just 800 votes -- but the message was clear: The federal Grits had imploded in Manitoba.

Since then, a lot has changed both locally and nationally. The Liberals under Trudeau continue to enjoy front-running support in national opinion surveys. The Grit lead is not commanding: At last count, the Liberals were about five points ahead of the ruling Conservatives, on average. But the length of time the Grits have led is an indication the Tories are in trouble.

Those poll results were reflected last fall when the Liberals ran a very close second in a byelection in Brandon-Souris, a longtime Tory stronghold. When it was all over, veteran Tory MLA Larry Maguire won the seat over Liberal challenger Rolf Dinsdale by just 400 votes. The Liberal result was portrayed across the country as a clear sign of both a Liberal resurgence and a Tory stumble.

The problem with reading too much into too many tea leaves this far out from the next election is so much can and will change.

The biggest question is whether Trudeau, who has most definitely led this Liberal resurgence, will continue to be an asset to his party. His propensity for inflammatory statements and policy has, to date, worked in his favour. Whether that continues is a big question hanging over the Liberals.

Trudeau has also not proven his mettle in the heat of an election campaign. Speculation about a possible snap election call next spring is based heavily on a Tory theory it is essential to get Trudeau into the harsh glare of a campaign as soon a possible because, once subjected to the stress and intensity of that environment, he will self-destruct.

All that having been said, in Manitoba right now the Tories are not getting a lot of good news or promising signs. The Liberals, on the other hand, are only seeing an upside.

That is why the image of 1,500 loyal Liberals showing up to nominate a candidate in a key riding like Winnipeg South Centre is so powerful. It is a sign the Liberals have momentum, something that on its own can sway voters with no strong attachment to any one party.

The stakes were high for the Liberals going into the nomination. Had there been a lukewarm turnout, the prospects for the party in this riding, and throughout the province, would have been quite dim indeed.

One nomination meeting does not a successful election make. But as politics is the art of the possible, a show of force like this makes a rebirth of the Liberal party seem a little more likely.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 18, 2014 A6

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