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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 April, 2005, 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK
Parties battle it out in Somerset

By Dave Harvey
BBC Bristol Political Correspondent

It's a two horse race in Somerset - and Tony Blair's not riding either of them. The Lib Dems clash with the Tories across the county, with results hanging on just hundreds of votes.
Ballot Box

The county that hailed King Paddy is no longer the Lib Dem fiefdom it once was, but Charles Kennedy still has half the seats here.

Paddy's successor in Yeovil, David Laws, is one of the party's rising stars, and even the Tories admit unseating him would be a major triumph.

Instead, Conservatives are looking to Weston-super-Mare and Somerton & Frome, where the Lib Dems were just 338 and 668 votes ahead.

It's just as tight the other way in Taunton, where Conservative Adrian Flook took the seat by just 235 votes in 2001.

Hunting did for the Lib Dems in Taunton last time round. Jackie Ballard fought openly on an anti-hunt ticket in the home of two of the country's biggest hunts, on Exmoor.

This time the Lib Dem candidate is Jeremy Browne and Labour are putting forward Andrew Govier.

With just hundreds of votes deciding some of Somerset's seats, expect to see plenty of big guns leaping on and off their battlebuses in the next month

The Conservatives campaign will focus on police, schools and hospitals here, as everywhere.

Somerset will be different though. Nationwide, the Tories train their fire on Labour - and the Lib Dems do likewise. But in Somerset, each must convince voters their alternative is better than the other's.

MPs from both parties have championed rural services like buses and post offices; will voters feel one opposition party has shouted louder than the other?

And widespread unease with government policy doesn't guarantee votes for the opposition either.

Silver Lions

Take Weston, home of the "Silver Lions" pensioner movement.

The town is packed with tea dances and retirement homes, and has one of the strongest Senior Citizens Forums in the country.

When they called a Council Tax demo recently, 300 turned out on a snowy afternoon. So too did Conservative and Lib Dem politicians, hoping to ride the tiger.

But the pensioners described the Tories' 500 cashback as "patronising". And the Lib Dems' local income tax fared little better, "why should we pay different amounts of tax in neighbouring councils?" they asked.

Bath, of course, is another Lib Dem stronghold. Even though the party now shares power on the council with the Tories, Don Foster's majority last time was 21%.

Tea shops

But just outside the city in Wansdyke, Labour's Dan Norris is defending a lead of 5,600 - this is within reach of the Tories, but Labour maintain they can increase it this time around.

Overall, Labour are pushing the message that they have good quality candidates in all Somerset seats - even though it is Lib Dem and Tory heartland.

A spokesman said: "We want voters to feel bold and confident when they cast their votes."

With just hundreds of votes deciding some of Somerset's seats, you can expect to see plenty of big guns from Westminster in the county in the next month.

And with hundreds of national reporters in tow, it should be good business for Somerset's tea shops and cider barns.

Other candidates known to be standing are:

  • Yeovil: Ian Jenkins (Cons), Colin Rolfe (Labour)
  • Bath: Sian Dawson (Cons), Harriet Ajderian (Labour)
  • Wansdyke: Gail Coleshill (Lib Dems), Chris Watt (Cons)