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EDITORIAL: Fresh faces in PC race

Dennis King is greeted by supporters during his announcement Wednesday night that he’s running for the P.E.I. PC party leadership.
Dennis King is greeted by supporters during his announcement night that he’s running for the P.E.I. PC party leadership. - Mitch MacDonald

But after successfully surviving a campaign in the winter from hell in 2015, it can survive anything.

The field is set; let the campaigning begin. Five Progressive Conservative hopefuls are already busy seeking support they hope will carry them to the party’s leadership Feb. 9 in Charlottetown.

It’s the PC’s third leadership convention since 2015 and the second time in that period where candidates will battle snow and cold as much as the governing Liberals. The early start of this winter made sure of that.

It will be a juggling act for all candidates to schedule door-knocking, meetings, rallies and debates around poor weather and winter driving. But after successfully surviving a campaign in the winter from hell in 2015, it can survive anything.

Once James Aylward announced his plans to step down in mid-September, the party had no choice – it had to get a leader in place at least two months before the next provincial election, widely expected for April or early May.

Political observers expressed surprise that the PCs didn't have a “name” candidate ready in the wings once Mr. Aylward stepped aside. Mr. Aylward saw glum poll numbers continue and made a personal decision he thought was best for the party.

A story persists that a well-known Charlottetown businessman was ready to run, but he wanted assurances from the PC caucus it wouldn’t oppose him. All eight PC MLAs made such a joint declaration, that was, at first, believed a sign of solidarity for their leader. But then the businessman changed his mind and caucus members were caught in the middle, after publicly taking themselves out of the race.

On the upside, that opened the race up for newcomers which offers the advantages of a fresh face and a new start for the party on its planned journey back to power.

Despite nagging leadership issues, and the surge in Green party strength, the PCs continue to hold a solid block of support, at 20 per cent, as seen in the latest Corporate Research Associates (CRA) poll Tuesday. Momentum from the leadership convention will provide a boost and what was seen as a two-way race will very likely be a tight, hard-fought three-way battle next spring.

The more interesting CRA poll might well be the one done in February right after the PC convention. If there is a surge in Tory, and assuredly there will be, it might be enough to propel the Tories back into contention and perhaps victory.

The five candidates offer an interesting mix of youth, experience and ideals that will give party supporters a lot to consider and debate. There is a much-needed female candidate and Sarah Stewart-Clark comes with impressive credentials. The university associate professor came to the public’s attention through a series of riveting mental health cases she brought to the public's attention. Those stories helped convince government to boost funding and programs for mental health across the province.

Alan Dale sees himself as a blank canvas waiting to serve Islanders, as he had served his country during a lengthy naval career. He was the first to join the race and has crafted his leadership around respect, trust and listening to Islanders.

Shawn Driscoll has been in the party’s backrooms both provincially and federally and doesn’t shy away from controversy by criticizing insiders who he thinks favour candidate Dennis King. He is young, ambitious and has a hard edge.

Kevin Arsenault earned a profile with blogs and opinion articles on land issues, PNP and e-gaming. He was expected to push a right-wing view on abortion but reversed himself on that issue, suggesting it's a federal matter and a done deal on P.E.I.

And then there’s Dennis King, perceived as the party’s choice and early front-runner. There are reports he has already signed up hundreds of new members, quickly establishing himself as the candidate to beat. He knows insiders and grassroots from his work with Mike Currie and former premier Pat Binns. A CBC radio political panel provided a profile to present himself as a reasonable party spokesman with a strong grasp of the issues.

As one political observer noted this week, Mr. King is funny, out-going, friendly and likeable -- all things our current premier is not.

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