Nova Scotia

Conservatives target Liberal-held Sydney

Just before a visit by Stephen Harper, Conservatives and Liberals were sparring over who can deliver for Cape Breton.

Two days before a visit by Stephen Harper, Conservatives and Liberals were sparring over who can deliver for Cape Breton.

Federal Conservatives hope a campaign stop in Sydney by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper on Thursday will help them defeat longtime Liberal Mark Eyking and steal a safe seat from the Liberals.

The Sydney-Victoria riding has not had a Conservative MP for 31 years. The Conservative candidate is former provincial cabinet minister Cecil Clarke.

He is trying take his party from third place to first in a riding where Eyking's low-key approach has won four straight elections.

"I like Mark Eyking. He's been a great community person. But it's about who can deliver. People in Cape Breton are looking for a change that will deliver for the area," Clarke told CBC News on Tuesday.

"I don't say I'm a better person. I believe I'm a better candidate."

Four months ago, Harper made his first visit to Cape Breton as prime minister to announce a $19-million federal investment in the dredging of Sydney harbour — a key step in the potential development of a container terminal in the Port of Sydney.

The project is currently the area's best hope for economic revitalization.

All candidates in Sydney-Victoria support the dredging project.

Clarke hopes Harper's return to Sydney will reinforce his message to voters.

"Stephen Harper didn't come empty-handed. Stephen Harper delivered for Cape Breton. He listened to the priorities I brought to him. He continues to listen and he's coming back," Clarke said.

Cape Breton University political scientist Tom Urbaniak said Clarke has Eyking "running scared at the moment," but the Liberal remains the favourite because of his personal popularity and the huge lead he carries into the race.

In the last election, Eyking — a farmer turned politician — garnered 49 per cent of the vote, defeating his nearest rival, an NDP candidate, by nearly 9,000 votes.

Urbaniak said for the Conservatives to have any chance, they have to overcome Harper's unpopularity in the riding, acknowledge the role of government intervention in depressed areas and hope for a Conservative bandwagon.

"If there's a sense that the Conservatives are on a cusp of a majority some people may switch their votes thinking it's important to have a seat, a voice around the table of government and not in opposition," Urbaniak said.

Eyking said he's not worried about Stephen Harper.

"I go by what I'm hearing at the door. People like the job I'm doing and people are upset with the way Mr. Harper runs this country," Eyking said in an interview from his MP's office.

A large billboard in downtown Sydney proclaimed his record as a constituency politician. The caption beside Ekying's smiling face reads, "Last year Mark helped 3,500 Cape Bretoners."

"People know what my record is. We serve over 3,500 people a year in this office — everything from passports to pensions," Eyking said.

'I'm not scared of anyone'

One of 14 children, Eyking said, "I'm not scared of anyone," but acknowledges "there's a more competitive environment right now."

He rejected claims he has not delivered for the Sydney-Victoria riding. He pointed to projects big and small, including a $400-million cleanup of the old Sydney Steel plant.

"When you look at the last 10 years, we've worked on over a billion dollars worth of projects all through Cape Breton, from the tar ponds to getting wharves repaired," he said. "A lot of it was done in the last few years in opposition."

Kathy MacLeod, a CUPE union representative, is running for the NDP, the Liberal's main competition for years. In the late 1990s, the NDP held the seat for one term.

"My message to constituents in Sydney-Victoria on May 2 is vote for the New Democrats. We see across Canada where we are gaining momentum, " MacLeod said.

MacLeod said voters are receptive to the NDP platform, especially about health care.

"We've said in our platform we want to train more nurses, doctors, health-care professionals. We want to train at least 1,200 of them, because we need more doctors, physicians and health-care professionals trained," she said.

Emergency room doctor Chris Millburn is running for the Green Party. Millburn told CBC News he is not actively campaigning.