Atlantic Canada poses a problem for the federal parties to win over because its nature is diverse, ranging from the concerns of Newfoundland's fishermen and oil interests to New Brunswick's economy dominated by the manufacturing prowess of the Irving and McCain families.
Toss in the rural concerns of P.E.I. farmers and Nova Scotia's continuing drive in just about all sectors of the economy, from tourism to the energy sector, and political planners must lie awake at night wondering just how to tap properly the flow of voters to their party on Oct. 14.
And don't make a misstep, or a party could face the wrath of a popular leader like Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, whose spat with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is growing to legendary status. The two have been sparring for a few years over equalization and fiscal imbalance.
On the surface, the issues can be seen by some to be basic, long-standing and familiar. Gun control questions, for example, are still being asked whenever politicians and voters meet. But the region is more than farming, more than fishing. Oil, energy and tourism all shape the area these days to greater degrees.
Atlantic Canada has more than 2.3 million residents and 32 seats up for grabs, so politicians have to pay attention to issues that arise there.
'Nasty personal attacks lower the level of debate'
An editorial Sept. 9 in the Chronicle Herald newspaper in Halifax suggested the federal parties, and particularly Harper, should focus less on attacking Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and move to talking more about the issues, ones that matter to the region, such as what effect climate policies will have on businesses and consumers in the area.
"Nasty personal attacks lower the level of debate and appeal to emotions and mere prejudices," said the editorial. "Worst of all, they suck the substance from a campaign and deprive us of the practical stuff we need to know to make good choices. Things like the actual cost to consumers of each party's carbon-pricing plan, and the offsetting tax cuts or incentives each party is proposing."
Williams in Newfoundland didn't appear to have read the Chronicle Herald before he launched into what might be seen as a personal attack on Harper during a speech Wednesday to the St. John's Board of Trade.
"A majority government for Stephen Harper would be one of the most negative political events in Canadian history," Williams warned.
The Telegram newspaper in St. John's took a reasoned tone in an editorial published online two days after the election call on Sept. 7. "Vote with your head" was the headline on the editorial, which detailed some of the issues that will be raised during the campaign, including one that is thought of strongly by Atlantic Canadians, the military and its role in Afghanistan.
"That same military is suffering particularly harsh casualties in the days leading up to the election, with four deaths bringing the number of Canadians killed in Afghanistan to 97 since 2002. Plenty more have suffered serious and debilitating injuries in a campaign that shows no sign of abating any time soon," wrote the Telegram, later asking "Should we still be in Afghanistan, or planning our exit?"
With the biggest Canadian military base, by land mass, at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick, a large naval presence in Halifax and a high number of Atlantic Canadians serving in the military, it's not hard to understand why voters in the area care about military issues.
The turbulent debate story
The ups and downs of whether to include Green party Leader Elizabeth May in the leaders' debate in early October has received a bit of ink in Atlantic Canada. It was an intriguing story but was likely pushed along even farther in the region because May's family moved to Cape Breton when she was a teenager and she is seeking a seat in Nova Scotia's Central Nova riding, now held by Conservative MP Peter MacKay.
May, who made a name for herself in the early 1980s as a young Nova Scotia activist and lawyer trying to stop the spraying of the controversial defoliant Agent Orange by timber concerns, was eventually allowed into the debate when the NDP and Conservatives bowed to public pressure and backed away from opposing her participation.
The Guardian newspaper in Charlottetown waded into the debate with an editorial entitled "May wins in the court of public opinion."
"The political leaders who initially opposed the inclusion of Green Party leader Elizabeth May in the televised federal leaders debates next month are no doubt wishing they'd thought twice before saying so," wrote the Guardian.
"Such an objection was fundamentally anti-democratic and the public outrage it prompted was predictable. No wonder they've changed their minds."
One of the questions some outside the region might consider is how much support May will get from Atlantic Canadians at the voting booths. That's hard to say, when you consider the fate of former NDP leader Alexa McDonough, who won her seat in the Halifax area in 1997 but did not manage to lead a breakthrough for her party in the region where she was from.
Liberals appear to hesitate on Liberal carbon plan
There was an interesting article in the Telegraph-Journal newspaper in New Brunswick a few days after the election call.
It dealt with whether provincial Energy Minister Jack Keir was ready to support the federal Liberals' carbon tax plan. The answer, or non-answer, spoke plenty in a province where manufacturing still holds a lofty position.
"As a minister of energy, I'm going to sit back and listen to the debate. I'm going to make sure I know what the impacts are of all the parties' policies," said Keir, who is from the Saint John area, where there is an oil refinery, a pulp mill and a paper mill, among other industries.
"We're going to step back and analyze this and make sure we have a good understanding of what the impacts are to the environment as well as economic development."
Keir went on to tell the newspaper: "We'll work with whatever government is formed after the election to make sure they understand [how] their policies relate with ours — [so] they understand the impact to New Brunswickers of anything the federal government does."
If voters in New Brunswick were looking for direction, they may not have received it from the energy minister, who appeared to be hedging a tad.
And when the federal Conservative and Liberal candidates in Saint John entered the fray, they differed on whether the Saint John oil refinery, for example, would be taxed for its emissions. The Conservative, Rodney Weston, asked Paul Zed to read his own party's website on the matter.
"The Conservatives are alleging that the Green Shift taxes [emissions]. That's not true. That's the lie and the falsehood," Zed said told the Telegraph-Journal.
As CBC reported later, New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham met with Dion in Saint John, just a few kilometres from the refinery in question, and said the provincial Liberals "fully support the platform of the Liberal party, which also includes a component called Green Shift."
"What's important to me as premier is how it [the Green Shift] dovetails into our provincial self-sufficiency agenda," Graham said, clearly not using words that would classify his comments as a ringing endorsement.
The earlier quote from Keir points to the nature of the economies in the Atlantic provinces, many of which have been tested by the recent strength of the Canadian dollar and high fuel prices.
When much of your business is done with the nearby northeast United States, those two factors matter, so any "Green Shift," along with energy and natural resources policies parties offer, will be closely monitored in Atlantic Canada.