BRANDON -- For some, it is a huge moral victory. For others, it is a missed opportunity and an example of defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory.
In Monday's Brandon-Souris byelection, Liberal candidate Rolf Dinsdale received the highest percentage, and second-highest number, of votes cast in the riding for a Liberal candidate in the past six decades. His 391-vote margin of defeat to Conservative Larry Maguire is the smallest for a Liberal during that time period.
Those are remarkable accomplishments for a Liberal in a Tory stronghold, but they do not diminish the fact that a series of tactical errors cost the Liberals victory on Monday night.
The errors began with the party's reaction to the Conservative nomination debacle, which saw Maguire acclaimed as the Tory candidate on Sept. 13 following the disqualification of two other candidates on technicalities.
At the time, Dinsdale and Frank Godon were seeking the Liberal nomination. Godon withdrew on Sept. 19 (he later decided to run as a Libertarian), leaving Dinsdale as the lone candidate. Having observed the controversy surrounding the Maguire acclamation, the Grits frantically searched for another candidate, so that (unlike the Tories) they could have a contested nomination meeting.
After several local Liberals declined to pursue the nomination, the Liberal leadership set their sights on Killarney Mayor Rick Pauls, a card-carrying Conservative who had announced on Sept. 24 he would run as an independent because of the Tory nomination controversy. An emissary of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was sent to Killarney and, on Sept. 27, Pauls announced he would challenge Dinsdale for the Liberal nomination.
The recruitment of Pauls was contrary to the advice of local Liberals. They argued it would be more helpful to the Liberal campaign if he ran as an independent, taking at least 1,000 votes from Maguire in a heavily Conservative corner of the riding. Pauls lost the nomination contest to Dinsdale, returned to Killarney and was of no help to the Dinsdale campaign.
The next mistake occurred on Nov. 13, during Trudeau's final visit to the riding. During his previous two visits, he had campaigned inside Brandon, even though local Liberals insisted it was important he also visit the rural portion of the riding. Instead of going to Souris, Virden or Rivers -- all a short drive from Brandon -- he went to Sioux Valley First Nation, where there were few votes to be won.
Even worse, Trudeau lost votes once the Tories seized on the fact he had discussed his plans to legalize the sale of marijuana with students at the Sioux Valley school.
The third error occurred this past weekend, when Trudeau chose to campaign in the Liberal strongholds of Toronto Centre and Bourassa, which the Grits won by healthy margins on Monday night.
"If Trudeau had left Pauls alone and let him run as an independent, we would have lost," admits a senior Manitoba Tory who assisted Maguire's campaign. "If he had campaigned in the rural area, we would have likely lost, and we would have certainly lost if he had been here in the final days to pull in votes for Dinsdale."
Those aren't the words of a Tory gloating post-victory. They are recognition that the Conservatives had a near-death experience in Brandon-Souris, and only avoided defeat because the Liberals didn't close the deal when it counted.
The ramifications of that failure cannot be exaggerated. A Liberal win in Brandon-Souris would have bolstered the Liberals' claim they are the only national alternative to the Tories.
It would have also dealt a withering blow to Stephen Harper's leadership of the Conservative party at a time when the Tory membership and caucus are already jittery over the Senate scandal. "The knives would have been out by the end of the week," says my Tory source.
Hindsight is always perfect after a close defeat, but Dinsdale's 391-vote loss was avoidable. The recruitment of Pauls helped Maguire. Trudeau's failure to campaign in rural Westman cost votes, and his decision to campaign in Ontario and Quebec last weekend, instead of returning to fight for votes in Brandon-Souris, sealed Dinsdale's fate.
A moral victory? No, not when a such an important win was within their grasp.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.