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Time to shine for Manitoba Liberals

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Recent polling data from our friends at Probe Research suggest change is on the horizon of Manitoba politics.

The Progressive Conservative party is soaring, the NDP is in free fall, and the Liberal party, the forgotten child, is suddenly showing signs of life.

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All of the typical cautions about polling data, and mid-term polling in particular, apply here. We're two years away from an election and survey respondents tend to park support with parties with no vote pending. Once a writ has been dropped, much of that parked support tends to be in play. Experienced strategists will tell you elections are won and lost during a campaign. For evidence, see the recent improbable win by the British Columbia Liberals, who overcame horrible poll results to form another government.

That is not to say Manitoba is going to experience a B.C.-like result. Manitoba generally has proven to be more staid and predictable.

The poll results are still remarkable news. In polling, the numbers are not as important as the trend line, and the trend for the NDP government is headed downward. The Tories are now leading in areas of Winnipeg where the NDP stole traditional PC seats in the last three elections. Those are the seats that helped solidify "Fortress Winnipeg," the block of constituencies that on their own almost guaranteed NDP majority governments.

The really great news for Tories is they have been able to achieve more robust support without really doing anything. After 14 years in power, the NDP -- straining under deficits and struggling to sell its PST hike -- seems to be finally coming unglued. An enhanced appetite for change, and recent self-inflicted wounds, have the long-ruling NDP reeling.

But what of the Liberals? With only MLA Jon Gerrard in the legislature, the Grits have been a non-factor for so long in Manitoba politics, it's been hard to see a future for the party.

The most recent poll results offer only a glimpse of hope. The Liberals did surge to 17 per cent support, up significantly from the seven per cent support it received on election day. However, traditionally the Liberals have been the biggest beneficiaries of "parking lot" respondents. The Grit numbers improve mid-mandate, only to tank on election day.

However, there is a chance the narrative could change this time for Liberals. Unlike any of the past four elections, the Liberals are poised to elect a new leader this fall. Gerrard has already stepped down, having firmly proven he is among the smartest politicians in Manitoba to never get a chance to govern. The Liberals could get a significant boost with a well-contested leadership that produces an exciting new political talent.

To date, it's not clear an exciting new talent is going to step forward. There are no declared candidates so far.

Still, opportunity is doing more than knocking now for Liberals. It is shouting in their specific direction.

A dynamic leader could offer the Liberals a reboot, a chance to re-establish themselves as a viable party.

If it were to actually happen, it would likely be the last nail in the coffin for the ruling New Democrats.

Traditionally, surging Liberal support has come at the expense of the NDP. Such was the case in 1988, when former Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs won 20 seats and became leader of the official Opposition; the NDP was reduced to just 12 seats.

It could be the Liberals have been out of the game for so long, voters no longer identify with the party.

That would mean Manitobans have grown comfortable with a two-party race, with large numbers moving back and forth between the Tories and NDP with little concern about ideology.

Over the next six months, the "race" in Manitoba will be boiled down to a two-horse affair, with the NDP and Tories trading blows.

The truth is Manitoba's lowly Liberals, a party that has been on life-support for some years now, has the opportunity to determine the outcome of the next election.

A little resurgence will most certainly doom the NDP.

However, a big resurgence, something of the magnitude of 1988, and all bets are off.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2013 A3

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