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Brandon-Souris candidates target Liberal

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BRANDON -- With opinion polls showing a tight race between the Liberal and Conservative candidates in the Brandon-Souris byelection campaign, a repeat of the 2012 Calgary Centre byelection results is the scenario the Liberals should be most concerned about.

In that contest, Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt was elected with 10,191 votes, while Liberal Harvey Locke ran second with 9,033 votes. Green party candidate Chris Turner finished third with 7,090 votes -- one of the best results for a federal Green Party candidate in any election. The NDP candidate, Dan Meades, was well back in fourth, with just 1,064 votes.

Immediately after the final results were known, accusations emerged the Greens had indirectly elected Crockatt by splitting the non-Tory vote and openly targeting Locke throughout the campaign. If not for the Green party, it was argued, voters would have delivered a strong message of disapproval to Stephen Harper by electing a Liberal MP in the heart of Conservative country.

We could hear the same arguments in Brandon-Souris two weeks from now, as the dust settles from the Nov. 25 byelection.

A recent Forum Research poll found 40 per cent of voters intend to vote for Liberal candidate Rolf Dinsdale, while 35 per cent support Conservative candidate Larry Maguire. NDP candidate Cory Szczepanski received 10 per cent support, one point ahead of Green party candidate David Neufeld. The results were almost identical to a Forum poll conducted in late October.

Though Dinsdale holds the lead in the polls, victory is far from certain. The Conservatives have thrown a great deal of effort into voter identification throughout the riding and have far more volunteers working for them than the Liberals. They are an experienced team that has ample resources to ensure every confirmed Conservative supporter makes it to a voting booth on election day.

In a close campaign, where low voter turnout will likely be an issue (as it almost always is in federal byelections), the Tories' superior organizational strength in all corners of the riding could be the decisive factor.

So could the strength of the Green party's support. The party's candidate finished third in Brandon-Souris in the past two federal elections, ahead of the Liberal candidates each time. In an election with average voter turnout, the Greens can normally count on at least 2,000 votes.

If that holds true this time, Neufeld's vote total could exceed the difference in votes between the Liberal and the Conservative. That prospect has caused some in Brandon-Souris to argue a Green party vote is a wasted vote, that it will only result in the election of Maguire. They complain the race wouldn't even be close if Neufeld wasn't in it.

It is an argument that may have also occurred to the Maguire campaign. The Tory candidate was a no-show at the first candidates' forum on Tuesday, hosted by the Brandon Friendship Centre, and has already said he will not attend the Brandon University Students' Union debate next week.

With Maguire not in attendance on Tuesday, the NDP, Green and Libertarian candidates took turns attacking Dinsdale, the perceived front-runner. Neufeld put in a strong performance, elevating his profile among voters unfamiliar with the Boissevain resident.

If the scenario repeats at the BUSU debate, and it likely will, it will continue to keep Dinsdale on the defensive and will further increase the odds of vote-splitting among the non-Tory candidates. If that is the objective of the Maguire campaign, it is equal parts smart and cynical.

Over the past several years, there have been calls throughout the country for some sort of "unite the left" strategy to defeat the Conservatives. It is an idea that assumes voters can't decide what they want on their own, and must have their choices artificially reduced.

Dinsdale has proven those kinds of backroom deals aren't necessary.

He has built a small lead in Brandon-Souris by convincing a large number of NDP and Green party supporters he has the best chance of defeating Maguire. If he can hold onto those voters and make sure they show up to vote, he will have united the left on his own.

If he can't, it will be Calgary Centre all over again.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 14, 2013 A13

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