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Insiders battle for helm in Nfld.

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Newfoundlanders are sweating it out in a heat wave, with record-breaking temperatures pushing uncomfortably close to 30 C. It's a novelty in a province where summers are notoriously cool and short and passing icebergs are a tourist attraction.

The only thing not generating much heat is the Progressive Conservative party's latest attempt to choose a leader who will become Newfoundland and Labrador's 12th premier.

The candidates, Paul Davis, Steve Kent and John Ottenheimer, are former cabinet ministers with something else in common -- not one of them was willing to step forward when the leadership was up for grabs a few months ago.

A bizarre chain of events has led to Leadership Race 2, the Sequel. Kathy Dunderdale resigned as premier in January, ironically after she downplayed the seriousness of power outages that left many Newfoundlanders freezing in the dark. Three party outsiders emerged as candidates to replace her, but one was disqualified, and fish-plant owner Bill Barry pulled out, claiming the contest was fixed.

That made Corner Brook businessman Frank Coleman, who had no prior political experience, the next premier by default. But in mid-June, less than three weeks before taking office, he abruptly quit. An intensely private man, Coleman would only say he had to deal with "a significant and challenging family matter."

Newfoundlanders -- including plenty of shocked PC supporters -- were left wondering if Tory warhorse John Crosbie was right when he grumbled that the ruling party was committing political suicide.

This time around, the leadership race is a battle of insiders with long political pedigrees. Kent and Davis resigned from cabinet to run, and Ottenheimer was health minister under revered former premier Danny Williams.

Davis, 53, has emerged as the front-runner and has the support of more than 10 members of the Tory caucus. He also has the best excuse for sitting out the first round -- he was dealing with a cancer diagnosis but now has a clean bill of health.

A former police officer and municipal politician who graduated to provincial politics in 2010, Davis stepped down as health minister to seek the top job and promises "a new beginning."

Kent is just 36 and says he would bring "something fresh -- something different" to the premier's office, and his campaign is using social media and robocalls to spread the word. The former mayor of Mount Pearl, just outside St. John's, he was minister of municipal affairs before entering the race.

The third candidate, 61-year-old Ottenheimer, has been out of politics since 2007 and carries the most baggage. He was health minister when the province's largest health authority revealed it had botched hundreds of breast cancer screening tests, and was grilled at the subsequent inquiry into the scandal.

One of these men will emerge from a leadership convention in mid-September facing an uphill battle to extend the PCs' 11-year rule. An election must be called within a year of a new premier taking office and there's little hope the Tories can win a fourth consecutive election.

While a June poll found six in 10 respondents are satisfied with interim Premier Tom Marshall's government, the PC party itself is in deep trouble. Slightly more than half of decided voters surveyed are backing the Liberals under new leader Dwight Ball and Tory support has sunk to below 30 per cent.

So the candidates have been forced to run against their party's record, in particular the lack of public scrutiny of the multibillion-dollar Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador and a clampdown on access to government records. All three are promising more openness and accountability and better communication with party members and the public.

But two leadership races in seven months have left the PCs looking like a party in disarray. The contenders have been derided as the Three Stooges, competing for the dubious honour of going down with the ship.

Delegate-selection meetings have been sparsely attended; a reporter for the St. John's Telegram estimates fewer than 4,000 people will pick the next premier, compared to the 24,000 who voted by phone and online last year to select Ball as Liberal leader.

Newfoundland's heat wave will be history by the time a new premier is chosen next month. For the winner, though, the heat will be on.

Dean Jobb is the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent and an associate professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2014 A9

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