One of the great things about political campaigns is that the players have a chance to surprise observers. We saw that in the Liberal leadership as Cathy Bennett went from being a complete political novice to coming in third against two experienced competitors.
In the Conservative leadership race, we have three experienced politicians so there is none of the newbie growth potential.
That doesn’t mean that we haven’t seen some shifts in perception in the first couple of weeks.
If you canvassed the opinion of observers, you’d likely have found they put Paul Davis down as the front runner in the campaign from the start. Davis is relatively new to politics but he has held down a variety of cabinet posts, is well-spoken and appears to perform well under pressure. He is likeable and - if nothing else – appears to offer a tidy Tory version of Dwight Ball.
Next in line would likely have come John Ottenheimer. That’s based largely on his long history with the party. He, too, presents very well and has plenty of contacts all through the party, all through the province going back a long time.
Last in line would have been Steve Kent. Kent is young, although he has plenty of experience having been in politics since he was a teenager. First elected to the House of Assembly in 2007, neither Danny Williams nor Kathy Dunderdale were too eager to put him in cabinet for some reason. That hints at a problem and , for the most part, Kent’s found the role of party hack on open line and Twitter to be one he enjoyed playing more than showing some weight and seriousness.
Well, those may still wind up being the rankings but if performance from the starting whistle is anything to judge, that’s not the way things stack up. Paul Davis, for example, delivered a work-man like launch. But the style was decidedly below that of someone who might well be the Premier in a few months. The presentation was amateurish, although Davis’ speech was reasonably well-written. After that, Davis has kept an extremely low profile, turning up only to have a yarn with a few members of the Conservative club at Memorial University.
Ottenheimer opted for a quiet launch and a few media interviews. He picked up a few endorsements from the current caucus last week. He’s mostly getting support from Conservatives in St. John’s like Shawn Skinner and Dan Crummell. Ottenheimer’s also picked up support from transportation minister Nick McGrath and – here’s the really interesting one – industry minister Susan Sullivan.
In a delegated convention, having ex-officios like incumbent politicians is a good thing in itself. They have a vote of their own. They can also help with local organization to win delegates elected at the district level. Having the one doesn’t always guarantee the other, though. In the 2001 Liberal leadership, John Efford and his team out-organized Grimes at the district level such that they won a majority of delegates elected in districts where the incumbent member of the House was backing Grimes.
Steve Kent, on the other hand, appears to be trying an outsider strategy. While Ottenheimer and Davis are making the rounds of small meetings all over the place, Kent started robo-calling people last week. he’s not working from a list of potential supporters – the Conservatives don’t have those kinds of lists that the whole party works from. he appeared to be using the telephone book. What Kent appears to be doing is collecting the names of potential supporters with an eye to sending them along to delegate selection meeting.
It’s a long shot, at best but Kent might be able to pick up a few delegates here and there. The big advantage to the robo-calls is that they are cheap: each contact probably costs less than six cents. There seem to be one main problems with an outsider strategy aimed at attracting a raft of new people to the Conservatives. Time is not on Kent’s side. Delegate selection meetings are only a few days away or a couple of weeks at best. That’s probably not enough time to sort through all the people who might call and organize them in a reliable enough way to win very many delegates. What makes the outsider approach even less likely to work is that Kent has a relatively low profile across the province outside of his Open Line calls. When Efford tried that sort of approach he was among the most recognized and popular politicians in the province. he’d built up a strong following in every nook and cranny. The same can’t be said for Kent.
But still, it might be enough to give Kent a shot at the leader’s job. After all, if the other two split the ex-officios – as they seem to be doing – there is a chance for Kent to pick up a few delegates here and there. That might not be enough to win, but it might be enough to give Kent something to bargain with at the convention.