Kathy Dunderdale sets out on this election trail to accomplish a rare political feat. Only once before in Canadian history has a woman led a political party to victory in a provincial election. To date, only Prince Edward Island's Catherine Callbeck has done so, in 1993.

Kathy Dunderdale, though, has had a habit of treading into new territory in public life, in a career that started with a small school board in southern Newfoundland and has brought her to the highest offices in the land.

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Kathy Dunderdale gives Danny Williams a hug moments after he announced his resignation on Nov. 25, 2010. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

"I always knew that I was going to lead an exciting life, but I couldn't have told you at that point what it would be," Dunderdale, 59, told the oil industry magazine Upstream this summer.

Dunderdale became premier last December when Premier Danny Williams retired from political life. At the outset, Dunderdale — who had been deputy premier and a key player in the Williams cabinet — was expected to play caretaker while the Progressive Conservatives set about picking a new, permanent leader.

That race never happened, and the party — despite whispers of coercion and ill feeling — rallied around Dunderdale, who had initially ruled out interest in staying on to lead the Tories. The argument went that a leadership contest, so close to the October 2011 election, would have been divisive.

Dunderdale was lured into political life by Williams (she had been provincial party president when she won the suburban St. John's seat of Virginia Waters for the PCs in that breakthrough year of 2003) and has vowed to follow through on many of the policies that Williams had launched.

"One of the greatest challenges is going to be that I'm not Danny Williams," Dunderdale told reporters last December, as she took on the reins of government. She has said her mission is to govern with "continuity and confidence."

'One of the greatest challenges is going to be that I'm not Danny Williams.'—Kathy Dunderdale, December 2010

But Dunderdale has also been keen to make her own mark, sparking controversy along the way.

Out of the gate, she dispatched her ministers to settle a 13-month-long strike of support workers on the Burin Peninsula, and cut a deal with the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association after months of protracted and public disputes.

But it was a risky decision in March to back Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the federal election campaign that showed Dunderdale was taking the government in a different direction. Williams, after all, had waged the ABC — Anybody But Conservative — campaign of 2008 that had shut out federal Tory candidates.

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Dunderdale backed Stephen Harper during the 2011 federal election campaign. ((CBC))

Dunderdale's support was admittedly conditional, and based on Harper's pledge to consider a loan guarantee for the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project at Muskrat Falls.

Even by then, however, there were apparent strains between Dunderdale's team and Williams, who pulled out of a party event that had been planned as a tribute in his honour. Williams suggested Dunderdale was pushing away from him. Dunderdale, for her part, seemed exasperated when asked about the matter this spring.  "I understand transitions can be difficult sometimes," she told reporters.

Comparisons with Williams are inevitable, and indeed with other politicians. Dunderdale, a grandmother and a widow, says she is bound to stand out.

"I'm not like anybody who was before," she told the St. John's Telegram this summer.

One of 11 children, the former Kathleen Warren grew up in rural Newfoundland, became a social worker, and then got involved in civic life through the local school system. She developed a taste for politics at the municipal level, working for years on the Burin town council. (She went on to become president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Municipalities.) An early victory was campaigning to keep open the fish plant in Burin, which remains in production to this day — no small feat in an always-tumultuous industry.

Personal transformation

Though she has lived in St. John's for many years, Dunderdale has credited her rural roots and background in community development as key to her career. "I understand this place," she told The Telegram in an interview.

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In July, Kathy Dunderdale became the first premier to run the Tely 10 road race. ((CBC) )

"I'm connected to it in a way that's difficult to explain, but most other people who live here understand."

Since taking office, Dunderdale has also undergone a personal transformation. She has taken on a fitness regiment that includes healthier eating and four lengthy runs per week. By the time she ran the Tely 10 road race in July, she said she had lost almost 100 pounds.

In addition to taking better care of her health, Dunderdale says her mission is to keep her eye on her political priorities — a theme she underscored when she was sworn in as premier last December.

"We will not lose focus, nor will we lose steam," she said. "We will defy any critics who would deny our children the opportunities that are theirs."