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VIBERT: Uneasy rests the target on front-runner’s back

Tim Houston has a target on his back and from all indications, he doesn’t wear it lightly.

The presumed front-runner in Nova Scotia’s Tory leadership contest wouldn’t cede the top spot, but having it means he’ll continue to feel the heat from rivals. He and his camp need to learn not to boil over, because that’s playing into his opponents’ hands.

Team Houston insists it is running an exemplary campaign, respectful of all potential voters and taking nothing for granted. They’re rankled by allegations that they are applying undue pressure on Tories who aren’t supporting their man and reject the idea that they are chasing an unlikely first ballot win.

But the narrative persists, nurtured nicely by some in the other camps but hey, that’s politics.

Part of that negative story says Houston built up his early lead by jump-starting his leadership bid in advance of former leader Jamie Baillie’s resignation. Critics also claim Houston is thin-skinned and wouldn’t handle the stresses of leadership well.

Houston is an affable guy who since 2013 has represented Pictou East in the legislature, where he handles himself well. But he needs to make sure his camp doesn’t do anything to feed the narrative others are weaving about him.

The Houston camp believes most of the negative commentary about their guy emanates from Cecil Clarke’s campaign. Some of it does but it’s also heard from supporters of his two caucus colleagues, Cumberland North MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin and John Lohr from Kings North. 

And there be dragons, because it’s from those camps that Houston will need to draw the second or third ballot support he needs to push him across the finish line.  Houston has the support of a majority of the PC caucus in the legislature.

His campaigners turn incoming criticism back on Clarke’s team, citing examples of the Clarke’s workers behaving badly.

The mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, Clarke is thought to be running second and, schooled in the rough-and-tumble politics of industrial Cape Breton, he is outwardly placid.  Time in the cabinets of John Hamm and Rodney MacDonald, and as mayor of CBRM, taught Clarke to roll with the punches.

The rift between the Clarke and Houston campaigns seems, at this early stage, irreconcilable to the point where neither should expect much, if any support from the other camp if it comes to that.

Julie Chaisson, who ran for the Tories in Chester St. Margaret’s in 2017, and is considered the long shot in the field, is determined to stay above the fray, and says much of her support is coming from new party members who don’t care for the old-style mud-slinging politics.

Policy matters in leadership races and not only because every party has its fair share of policy wonks. Tories are looking at each candidate’s ability to articulate a clear direction through policy and judging those positions for broader electoral appeal.

Lohr has staked out the right-of-centre flank and is differentiating himself with unequivocally conservative positions. Clarke is closely associating himself with Lohr on fiscal matters and, with Lohr’s supporters in mind, is generous in his praise of Lohr’s forthright manner.

The candidates’ position on the province’s ban on fracking is an issue with some Tories, although there really isn’t much to separate the candidates’ positions.

Lohr favours shale gas exploration and extraction and has no hesitation in saying so. He sees the potential of the resource to boost the perpetually destressed economies in parts of rural Nova Scotia.

Clarke, Smith-McCrossin and Houston would all permit local communities to decide whether to permit exploration and development of nearby gas.  Fracking is a process to extract gas trapped inside underground rock formations by hydraulically fracturing (fracking) the rock.

Clarke wants local or regional communities to receive the lion’s share of benefits, including most of the royalties where fracking is allowed.

Chaisson wants more involved consultation than just local community involvement and believes people need to be well-informed about the technology before they’re asked to support or reject fracking.

Tories will select their new leader October 27, through a combination of write-in preferential ballots and a leadership convention at the Halifax Exhibition Centre. Between now and then, this promises to be a pretty good political dustup.

Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.

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