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Negative campaign ads unleashed

When B.C. Liberal supporters launched a million-dollars' worth of negative advertising at Adrian Dix four years ago, the first response from the then-New Democratic Party leader was to stay positive.

When B.C. Liberal supporters launched a million-dollars' worth of negative advertising at Adrian Dix four years ago, the first response from the then-New Democratic Party leader was to stay positive.

"While the Liberal party relies on personal attacks, I plan to act on issues important to you and your family," declared Dix in television ads airing the same week as radio spots from the so-called Concerned Citizens for B.C. began branding him as "a risk we cannot afford."

The Opposition leader would stick to the vow of chastity on going negative throughout campaign 2013, even as his own supporters urged him to fight back against Premier Christy Clark attack ad for attack ad.

"It's a big risk," Dix conceded in an interview a month before voting day. "The Liberals are clearly going to run the hardest, most negative campaign we've ever seen. The people in charge of their campaign are skilled campaigners. They believe that will succeed.

"I'm doing an entirely different thing. We're going to run positively - and we're not going to make personal attacks - and we'll see what people like more."

The outcome on May 14 spoke for itself, as the New Democrats themselves acknowledged in a devastating post-mortem on a losing campaign.

"Positive did not work," conceded campaign manager Brian Topp and the other senior staffers who put together the report. "While the B.C. Liberals attacked our leader in personal and sometimes arguably libellous terms, the premier and her record in government were often off limits. This was a mistake."

That was not the only failing documented in the remarkably candid account of a battle plan that did not survive contact with the enemy. But it was nevertheless the starting point for a party-wide vow of "never again" on a campaign that would exclusively accentuate the positive.

Consequently one can readily imagine the NDP's response to the announcement this week from another group of well-funded B.C. Liberal supporters - this time calling themselves Future Prosperity for B.C. - of "a public education campaign" targeting Dix's successor, Opposition leader John Horgan.

"The public education campaign will shine a light on John Horgan's efforts to be all things to all people, and his growing track record of saying different things to different special interest groups to win their support," said the release issued Tuesday by campaign frontman John Winter, recently retired CEO of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.

"Few people have heard of John Horgan, Leader of the B.C. NDP," declares the first spot posted online at the website of the Say Anything John campaign. "No one knows where he really stands on important issues."

Then, as some of Horgan's statements over the years are flashed on the screen the voice-over continues: "He knows he needs the support of both environmentalists and union leaders. John Horgan will say one thing to union leaders and another to environmentalists. ... And whatever he needs to say to you to win."

That's merely the first instalment in a campaign that will be mounted through social media as well as traditional radio, television and print. All in all, Winter expects to spend $2 million, double the budget for the anti-Dix campaign fronted by business leader John Shepard.

In crafting a response, Horgan and his advisers will likely harken back to the key realization from the post-mortem on 2013.

"In modern, television-driven politics, the leader is the brand," wrote campaign manager Topp and his associates. "Politics is personalized, and many voters make their ultimate decisions in the election based on trust and how they respond to the individuals offering themselves as premier.

"We went after the 'B.C. Liberals,' and the Liberals went directly after our leader. Almost always, an effective campaign must engage the opposing leader by name, every day, and at every level."

Indeed, the New Democrats have already field-tested that leader-centred plan of attack in two provincial byelections that the party won a year ago.

"It's been five years of Christy Clark photo ops," said the voice-over on that prototypical attack ad. "Five years of underfunded hospitals. Five years without the schools we need. Five years higher MSP, Hydro and ICBC fees. Five years of Liberal secrecy and scandal."

Images of Clark herself in various public appearances supplied the visual backdrop coupled with newspaper headlines that further substantiated the voiceover. Then the punch line: "Send Christy Clark a message. Vote NDP."

Expect to hear more about Premier Photo Op versus Say Anything Horgan in the first round of negative campaigning in this election year.

And with voting day still four months away, there will be plenty more where that came from.