Cochrane | Have the Liberals regained momentum?

After a decade at the bottom, the Liberals may finally be able to connect meaningfully again with voters, On Point host David Cochrane writes.

For the past 10 years, the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador has either been in decline or trying to bounce back from rock bottom.

Leader after leader has come and gone, and each time the party's top job was available, the party faithful mused wistfully about the possibility of the next savior who would make everything better.

Instead, things got worse.

The Liberals had their worst election ever in 2007 and barely managed to hold off the NDP in 2011 to keep Official Opposition status. Public opinion polls consistently put the party of Smallwood, Wells and Tobin in a distant third. The crippling party debt has been essentially untouched.

But lately, things are looking up. In the most recent Corporate Research Associates poll, the Liberals are in a statistical tie with the NDP for first place.

In the latest Angus Reid poll, interim Liberal leader Dwight Ball has seen his approval ratings surge to rival those of NDP leader Lorraine Michael.

Dwight Ball would like to remove the 'interim' from his title as leader of Newfoundland and Labrador's Liberals. (CBC)

Yvonne Jones handily won the federal byelection in Labrador, while Lisa Dempster held Cartwright-L'Anse au Clair to preserve the Liberal's status as the second largest caucus in the house of assembly.

It is hard to remember a time when so many things were going so well for the Liberals.

Of course, this is only one polling cycle, more than two years before the next provincial election. But it highlights the potential for a Liberal resurgence as the party prepares for its latest, newest leader. Which means this leadership race is more important than the series of acclamations the Liberals have had over the past decade.

For the first time since Roger Grimes beat John Efford and Paul Dicks, the Liberals seem destined for a contested leadership race.

Ball is running to remove the interim tag from his leadership. He will be challenged by his caucus wild card Jim Bennett and the party's eternal candidate Danny Dumaresque.

The Wing Night Revolution

If that's the field, Ball should win handily. Jim Bennett was party leader once before and it lasted just three months. Bennett was forced out in May 2006 during the Wing Night Revolution — a secret meeting between the caucus and the party executive in a private room at the Guv'nor Pub in St. John's.

Dumaresque has run in more districts than most people can name and is known more for running than winning. Dumaresque has his supporters inside the Liberal ranks, but his chronic failure to win a seat in the legislature highlights the limits of his political viability.

And then there's Cathy Bennett (no relation to Jim). Cathy Bennett confirmed this week that she was considering a run at the party's top job.

A McDonald's franchise owner and former president of the St. John's Board of Trade, Bennett is the kind of candidate the Liberals would have swooned over in past races.

She carries the baggage of close ties to the Tories into this race (financial contributions and board appointments are at the top of that list) but Cathy Bennett also brings a successful business record and a reputation that can attract talent and money.

Former premier Roger Grimes says if Cathy Bennett does run, it would be a race between her and Ball. Grimes went as far as to suggest that Jim Bennett and Dumaresque should drop out.

"Certainly they have a right to run, but I think most people in the general public would say you better save your $20,000, or whatever it is, and go on to something else," said Grimes.

"Most people, and I think a lot of Liberals would say, if these two people [Ball and Cathy Bennett] run, they would be the contenders for the job as leader."

It's unlikely that Dumaresque and Jim Bennett will take Grimes' advice, while at this point Cathy Bennett has only said she is thinking about running.

But for the first time in a decade the Liberals are showing real signs of forward progress.

That boosts Ball's chances to win his job full time, but it could also make his path more difficult as the provincial Liberal leadership may suddenly be a prize worth winning.