Progressive Conservative election hopes are getting a boost this week with two high-profile candidates coming forward in two days.
Keith Ashfield, a former federal and provincial cabinet minister, will attempt a political comeback by running for the PC nomination in Oromocto-Lincoln-Fredericton.
His announcement Tuesday night came 24 hours after prominent Moncton lawyer Moira Kelly Murphy told supporters she plans to challenge Liberal Finance Minister Cathy Rogers in her Moncton South riding.
"There seems to be a shift right now in the province," said party president Rick Lafrance. He said many people are calling the PC office to find out how to run. "There's a huge talent pool that's coming forward."
In Harper's cabinet
Ashfield, a provincial MLA from 1999 to 2008 who served as natural resources minister in the Bernard Lord government, was elected MP for Fredericton and eventually joined Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet. He was defeated in in the 2015 federal election.
"I've never lost the desire to play a part and I think I have a lot to offer," he said in an interview Wednesday.
Kelly Murphy, a veteran lawyer, is also known in political circles as the spouse of former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Mike Murphy. She has not responded to calls and emails about her candidacy.
Lafrance said as more people learn about PC leader Blaine Higgs, more of them come forward with an interest in running for the party. He said that includes in francophone northern New Brunswick, where the party's lone MLA, Madeleine Dubé, is not reoffering.
But a Liberal spokesperson quickly dismissed the notion that Kelly Murphy and Ashfield are signs of PC momentum.
"We have strong and high-profile candidates in those ridings," Liberal executive director Keiller Zed said in a written statement.
He said Rogers is the province's first female finance minister, and retired army colonel John Fife is "one of the best-known individuals at CFB Gagetown."
He called them "both excellent candidates who we expect to win.
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"In terms of the PCs," he added, "we're not sure that two strongly pro-life candidates who oppose our measures to reduce barriers to reproductive rights are a benefit to the PC cause in those urban ridings."
Zed didn't provide any documentation of Kelly Murphy's and Ashfield's views on abortion. Lafrance wouldn't comment on the Liberal attack, saying he wasn't aware of the two candidates' views.
Higgs said when he ran for the PC leadership in 2016 that he would not reverse the Gallant Liberals' loosening of restrictions on hospital abortions.
Improving slow economy
Ashfield said Wednesday he was motivated to get back into politics by the province's soaring debt and the sluggish economy. He said that when PC incumbent MLA Jody Carr announced he would not run again in Oromocto-Lincoln-Fredericton, he decided to seek the nomination.
He doesn't think his time in the federal Harper cabinet can be used against him by the Liberals, despite a region-wide rejection of the party in the 2015 federal election.
"I don't look at the 2015 federal election as a personal loss, he said, noting the Liberals won all 32 seats in the region. "It was an Atlantic Canada loss."
"I'm not ashamed of my record as an MP. It was a good record, it's a matter of record, and people can take a look and see what my accomplishments were."
"Governments run out of time eventually. Prime Minister Harper had nine years and I think that was a large part of it. People wanted change."
Inspiration for PC supporters
Ashfield went through open-heart surgery and cancer treatment while a federal MP, but said his health is "excellent" now.
"I feel great," he said. "I have no problems with my health at all."
Political scientist J.P. Lewis of the University of New Brunswick at Saint John said having two high-profile candidates announce they're running will be a boost for PC supporters.
The party has lagged behind the Liberals in some public opinion polls and also has far less money in the bank for the coming campaign.
Sign of support for Higgs
But Lewis said that in the public mind, a couple of well-known candidates can outweigh those concerns.
"Any momentum for the PC party now is good," he said, given the party doesn't seem to have capitalized on Liberal "self-inflicted wounds."
He also noted most current PC MLAs did not support Higgs in the leadership race, so the willingness of good candidates to run under his leadership shows he is gaining support.
"The 'star candidate' factor can be overrated," he added, but with the Gallant Liberals orchestrating a flood of government announcements and photo opportunities, "any day [the PCs] are in the news for positive or team-building reasons is a good day for them."
The Tories have 22 nominated candidates so far and the Liberals have 28. Election day is Sept. 24.