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Voters trust Campbell on economy, mistrust him otherwise: poll

VICTORIA –One of Premier Gordon Campbell's major hurdles to winning a third term on May 12 may be himself, a new poll suggests.

The online Harris-Decima poll conducted exclusively for The Canadian Press found voter mistrust of Campbell was the second most important ballot issue next to the economy among respondents.

The poll is based on a survey of 1,000 British Columbians from April 27 to May 2.

Voters surveyed overwhelmingly ranked Campbell and his Liberals as their top choice when it comes to handling the No. 1 issue of the election, the economy, but the second most important issue was mistrust of Campbell.

Jeff Walker, a senior vice-president with Harris-Decima, said voter boredom with Campbell after eight years as premier and the ongoing B.C. Rail issue are likely reasons why the mistrust has risen to near the top for voters.

"Over time, becoming too familiar sometimes can be a difficult thing for a leader to face," Walker said.

'Premier Campbell has been the premier for a long time and that comes along with a certain amount of baggage where people just get tired with a person or are unhappy with a decision or two or three that they've made over the course of their leadership.'

The poll results are examples of the unique flavour of B.C. politics, said Jason Morris, a political science professor at the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George.

'You've got a premier saddled with an image, fair or not, of being a bit cold, and... maybe a bit too quick to judge and not listening, and you can have a party that manages the economy with a leader you don't like,' he said.

Campbell does not fit in with British Columbia's political tradition of populist premiers – WAC Bennett, Bill Vander Zalm, Glen Clark and Dave Barrett – but that's not his style, Morris said.

"Campbell has tried to be more of an administrator," he said. "To say I'm the fellow who wants to mind the store and you won't see me in blue leisure suits collecting velvet Elvis posters."

The question, he said, is: "Can you just continue on as Gordon Campbell knowing that not everybody loves you, but (voters) still are OK with you in charge?"

The poll found 48 per cent of decided voters surveyed named the economy as the most important issue. Mistrust of Campbell was second, at 22 per cent.

But when respondents were asked what issue would most influence their vote, 37 per cent said the party best able to handle the economy.

And 64 per cent of respondents rated Campbell either very capable or capable of handling the B.C. economy, which has slipped into recession after several years of record job growth and surplus budgets.

NDP Leader Carole James was way behind, with only five per cent of respondents saying she was very capable of handling the economy and a further 33 per cent saying she was fairly capable.

Like another recent polls, the Harris-Decima survey also suggests the Liberals and the NDP were in a neck-and-neck race, but there was a huge swath – some 28 per cent – of respondents who said they were still undecided with only days to go before voting day.

"The first thing (the poll) tells me is there's a lot of British Columbians who aren't quite sure exactly what they are going to do on voting day and that means that the result, probably, is still really up for grabs," Walker said.

And while voters struggle with supporting a premier they view as economically competent but not trustworthy, the New Democrats face a voter dilemma of their own, he said.

Environmental voters who traditionally lean towards the Green Party but end up voting New Democrat are now torn between voting NDP or Green on May 12, said Walker.

"Given the number of environmental initiatives that Gordon Campbell has pursued, it's hard to see why somebody who's a Green voter would feel so compelled to say, 'You know what, I need to stop Gordon Campbell.' It just doesn't have the same resonance that it might have in another circumstance," he said.

Campbell was first elected in 2001, but has been Liberal leader since 1993. He is, along with Premier Gary Doer of Manitoba and Quebec's Jean Charest, one of the longest-serving premiers in Canada.

Campbell consistently fought image issues during his early years in provincial politics. As Liberal Opposition leader in the mid-1990s and during his first term as premier after the 2001 election, he was portrayed as more comfortable in a boardroom or library than in front of a crowd.

Campbell was forced to show his emotional side after he was arrested for drunk driving in Maui in January 2003. He admitted the mistake during a public news conference but did not resign, and his support and popularity increased.

During the current campaign Campbell has been gregarious to the point where he makes it a point to greet protesters at his campaign stops.

He was criticized after last Sunday's televised debate for telling James that handling the province's crime wave was a big job.

"I do think there's a bit of an overlay here maybe with the B.C. Rail story, with some of the others that are more specific, and maybe they are hurting Premier Campbell a little bit more than we might expect," Walker said.

The B.C. Rail issue has been fuel for the NDP fire in the legislature and on the campaign trail.

Controversial Liberal insider Patrick Kinsella, who co-chaired two Campbell election campaigns, and whose name surfaced at the long-running B.C. legislature raid trial, demanded an apology from the NDP days into the campaign.

The NDP sent a letter to the RCMP to investigate allegations about Kinsella.

Kinsella's lawyer sent a letter to the NDP demanding an apology, which so far hasn't materialized.

Kinsella's name surfaced at the trial of two former Liberal government aides charged with fraud and breach of trust following the unprecedented 2003 police raid on the B.C. legislature in connection with the privatization sale of BC Rail.

Campbell has been asked about Kinsella throughout the campaign, but said he has not spoken to his former campaign aide in ages.

Among the other issues of importance for the voters surveyed, in descending order, were health care, the environment, mistrust of James, anger over the Liberal carbon tax and anger over the NDP plan to axe the carbon tax.

The poll also found respondents were not convinced either Campbell or James were capable of handling difficulties facing B.C.'s forest industry.

Forty-five per cent said Campbell was very capable or fairly capable of handling the forest crisis, while 42 said James was capable of handling the industry.

Dirk Meissner reports for The Canadian Press.

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