Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil thinks his political rivals don't see him as much of a threat and he's fine with that.

He says others underestimated him when he ran for the leadership of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party and it's one of the reasons he won that race in 2007.

McNeil is hoping to surprise his rivals during this campaign, too.

The NDP has targeted him in partisan ads attacking the Liberals, but McNeil is convinced the party in power doesn't really think he's a serious threat to their leader, Darrell Dexter, in a head-to-head competition.

McNeil says that's because he's not a lawyer like the premier.

Before entering politics, McNeil ran a small appliance repair business — a fact one New Democrat backbencher once mocked in the legislature.

On Dec. 4, 2012, during debate on electricity rates, Clarrie MacKinnon said, "The only experience the leader of the Official Opposition has on power electricity is the power it takes to run a washer or a dryer."

The MLA for Pictou East later apologized.

"The only time they've begun to take us as a serious threat has been in the last six months," said McNeil.

There's good reason for that. The polls have been kind to the Liberals in recent months. Since last fall, the party has been the most popular choice among those surveyed by Corporate Research Associates.

A poll published Sept. 6, 2012, had the Liberals leading the NDP by 10 percentage points — 41 per cent support for the Liberals to 31 per cent for the New Democrats. It was the first time in six years a party other than the NDP led in voter intention in a CRA poll.

Rebuilding

This is McNeil's second election as Liberal leader and he says this one will be different.

He said that's because, in the last general election in 2009, the party still hadn't recovered from the damage it suffered in the 2006 vote.

'We see people coming out and supporting us in a way we haven't seen in a very long time — I dare say long before my time.'  — Stephen McNeil

That's when leader Francis MacKenzie led the party to one of its worst showings in history: just nine seats in the legislature.

Under McNeil's leadership, the party picked up two more seats in the 2009 general election. The party added another two seats in byelections and McNeil personally convinced the interim Progressive Conservative leader to cross the floor in January 2011.

McNeil credits his party's most recent successes to the work he and others have done rebuilding the party's base of support, as well as their efforts to refocus its attention on issues with broader appeal rather than strictly local issues.

In recent months, the party has concentrated on pocketbook issues such as increasing power rates and the heavy tax burden being shouldered by Nova Scotians.

It has also gone after the government over its cuts to education.

Family influence

Education is a big issue in McNeil's world — three of his 16 siblings are teachers while two others are educational assistants.

The McNeils are also committed to public service. Five of his brothers are police officers.

His mother, Theresa, was recognized with the Order of Nova Scotia in 2005 for her community work and for the distinction of being Canada's first female sheriff. She took the job after her husband died suddenly, leaving her a single mother with 17 children.

McNeil credits his mother for instilling in him a strong work ethic.

He said that's served him well rebuilding the Liberal Party to its current strength.

In 2013, McNeil is hoping to woo voters who are dissatisfied with the NDP record and disillusioned with the party that promised to "govern differently."

After 14 years on the opposition benches, he thinks Nova Scotians are ready to once again elect a Liberal government in Nova Scotia.

"We see people coming out and supporting us in a way we haven't seen in a very long time — I dare say long before my time," he said. "We haven't seen it since the last time we were in government."

Why?

"Nova Scotians believe we can win," he said. "Nova Scotians believe we can be government. Nova Scotians are seeing us as the alternative. I don't believe anyone thought going into the last campaign, that we were the alternative."

A jump to government, if that were to happen, might convince his political rivals never again to underestimate the man who was once content to run a small appliance repair business but now wants to run the province.