A month ago, the Saskatchewan election campaign showed all the signs of an opposition sweep. A tired, long-in-the-tooth government with no clear sense of direction since the deficit dragon was slain in the mid-1990s, Lorne Calvert and the New Democrats should have been easy pickings for Elwin Hermanson and the “we-aren’t-the-Tories — no, really” Saskatchewan Party.

Yet the opposition failed to capitalize on a government showing signs of desperation and disarray. Since the election call, most of the damage to the NDP was self-inflicted, with two officials losing their jobs after an embarrassing leak of a series of emails and a tasteless political cartoon.

It is an odd election indeed where a government’s best asset is the opposition leader, but that is certainly the case here in Saskatchewan. There isn’t a New Democrat in Saskatchewan who does not pray daily for “Tickle-Me-Elwin’s” continued good health.

On the other hand, Lorne Calvert consistently won the poll on which party leader voters prefer. Calvert is seen as decent and trustworthy, if less fiscally adept than former Premier Roy Romanow. (Ironically, most of the damage to the NDP’s fiscal credibility over the past year has been the fallout from questionable decisions under Romanow. But Romanow is gone and Calvert is left to carry the can.)

The NDP’s greatest weakness was the sad legacy of Roy Romanow — not his policies but his complete failure to renew the party and to renew the caucus. The government had unimpressive bench strength during the last Legislature, which left many weak Ministers in place. Many weak caucus incumbentsran again.

The most cogent public comment during the campaign was Liberal leader David Karwacki’s observation that the voters are tired of the NDP but don’t trust the SaskParty.

Mid-campaign, two polls were released (one commissioned by CanWest-Global, the other by the CBC) showing the two major parties in a statistical dead heat, with the NDP slightly ahead but within the margin of error. The election that should have been a slam dunk for the SaskParty, suddenly wasn’t. The poll results seemed to say less about NDP strength than about SaskParty ineptitude.

The NDP ran a very solid campaign, hitting all the right buttons with voters. The only serious mistake was “the cartoon,” drawn by a senior campaign official and distributed by email to a number of party insiders. It depicted SaskParty leader Elwin Hermanson as a Nazi, loading NDP supporters onto cattle cars and checking their names against a list. It was intended to refer to a list of people appointed to government boards or commissions by Order in Council and headed “List of People with NDP Connections” which had been leaked to the NDP and released about a week before the campaign.

The SaskParty hit list had been resonating with voters, and had successfully reminded them of the massive purge undertaken by the Grant Devine Tories in 1982. As a result of the cartoon, the hit list was no longer available in the NDP arsenal. And the TV image of Hermanson with tears in his eyes humanized the hitherto stiff and unsympathetic SaskParty leader.

Fortunately for the NDP, the SaskParty brain trust was almost as inept. At first, they played the issue perfectly, with Hermanson publicly accepting Calvert’s apology. But over the next week, the SaskParty backrooms decided that two fired officials were not enough and began to demand that all recipients of the email be fired, solely for the crime of having been sent an unsolicited email.

The great mystery of this election was the SaskParty campaign strategy. Every public opinion poll over the past four years has shown Hermanson running well behind first Romanow and more recently Calvert as the choice for best premier. Both the CanWest-Global poll and the CBC poll showed Calvert well out in front.

Historically, when a party leader has high negatives, the party will run on “the team.” But the SaskParty chose to build the entire campaign around their leader. The provincial campaign never mentioned SaskParty stars such as Swift Current MLA Brad Wall, their most effective performer in the House, or Weyburn-Big Muddy MLA Brenda Bakken, a former Dairy Queen franchisee who persuaded her former burger chain to use 100 per cent Canadian beef in the aftermath of the BSE crisis. Rarely did Hermanson refer to such candidates as former Saskatchewan Roughrider, Rob Bresciani, or former Saskatoon Citizen of the Year, Ted Merriman.

In part, this may reflect the delicacy of Hermanson’s ego. He appears to mistrust strong personalities that might overshadow him, and this has been reflected in several of his actions as leader. He made a very weak rookie MLA the party’s agriculture critic, despite the importance of producers in his partyâe(TM)s voter base. And when Grant Schmidt, a prominent Minister from the Devine era, defeated incumbent MLA Bob Bjornrud for the nomination in Melville-Saltcoats, Hermanson acted quickly to depose this potential leadership rival by having the nominating convention results overturned. Schmidt has launched a lawsuit against the party for his expenses in seeking the nomination, threatened to sue Hermanson for slander, and is now running as an independent. The SaskParty is widely expected to lose what should have been a safe seat to either Schmidt or New Democrat and ex-Liberal Ron Osika.

The NDP managed to tie their flagship issue to the Hermanson one-man-band, claiming that the SaskParty intends to firesale all the province’s Crown corporations. Hermanson denies any “plan to sell the four core Crowns” (SaskTel, SaskPower, SaskEnergy and Saskatchewan Government Insurance). But in the news conference releasing the platform, Hermanson failed to stay on message, conceding that he would be prepared to look at offers for the four core Crowns, except for the Auto Fund, a small portion of SGI.

The SaskParty campaign accused the NDP of lying about the Crowns, and during the leadersâe(TM) debate, claimed that the Calvert government had put together a plan to privatize a part of SaskEnergy. But that latter claim, based on six-month-old briefing notes about a proposed joint venture with a private Alberta firm, have gone nowhere. Commentators have asked why the SaskParty doesn’t simply present a coherent argument for privatization instead of dissembling about their policy.

The Liberals, under David Karwacki, ran a good campaign and had several strong candidates, but were not expected to make any breakthrough, possibly losing one seat. North Battleford MLA Jack Hillson faced a strong challenge from former NDP MP Len Taylor and local car dealer Larry Doke for the SaskParty. In Karwacki’s own seat, where the NDP incumbent stepped down, he faced stiff competition from Frank Quennell, the older brother of Karwacki’s Chief of Staff.

In 1999, the Saskatchewan Party swept the country while the NDP swept the cities. Two of the three Liberals elected last time ran this time as New Democrats. The key to this election: which party can get traction in the other party’s turf? While the SaskParty smells blood in the NDP’s two rural seats and in Saskatoon, the NDP also sees a few vulnerable SaskParty seats in the countryside.