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Three-way fight for a beleaguered minister

Elizabeth Petrie and her five-year-old daughter Hannah were playing in the sunshine when the Tory canvassers descended on Thorngrove Avenue. "Can I count on your vote?" enquired the blue-rosetted, Barbour jacketed-figure, having sped up the latest drive to shake hands.

"Probably," Mrs Petrie told Raymond Robertson, Education Minister and sitting member for Aberdeen South. His job is on the line in this three-way marginal seat, a top priority for the Liberal Democrats and a juicy target for Labour.

Like a sizeable number on the doorsteps of the respectable Seafield area of the city, either Mrs Petrie is genuinely one of the undecided or she does not like to admit her political preference to her MP's face. Out of ministerial earshot, she confessed: "I'm afraid I'm one of those floatie people. Like a lot of people just now, I think they are confused. There's a fear of Labour and people are genuinely scared because they change their tune. Education and health are important . . . and I do not want my mortgage to go up."

The sprightly minister, well removed from ministerial chores and clearly enjoying the flesh pressing, skipped between daffodil-lined hedgerows as his advance team rang doorbells. "Where is the man?" a gentleman asked, popping his head round the portal. The minister duly sprang up the path. This was another safe vote, bagged on the election agent's street-by-street chart as a "definite".

Elderly ladies formed the bulk of the home-stays in this genteel Tory heartland, one sneeringly labelling Tony Blair a "Barbie Ken". She liked "genuine" John Major, "but what are they playing at among themselves?" Another door, another response. Negative this time.

A mother with two daughters is worried about cutbacks. "I'm a Conservative voter but I won't be voting Conservative again," she brusquely told the minister, who promptly blamed the Labour council.

Education is not a key issue, Mr Robertson says. "It is the quality of life in the north-east which is second to none that is important. We have good schools and good hospitals. There are enough Tories in the constituency to win it and it is a matter of getting them out. It is a natural Conservative seat and I do not believe Anne (Begg, Labour) or Nicol (Stephen, Liberal Democrat) would contest that," he said, highlighting the 2.9 per cent unemployment level.

Mr Robertson has found "no slippage" in the vote and is confident a substantial number of "undecideds" will return to the fold.

His chief opponents, Liberal Democrats and Labour, with the Nationalists seemingly running fourth, maintain they are both the principal challenger. The fierce battle is to win over the tactical voters in the vastly redrawn constituency that now includes the large housing scheme of Kincorth, south of the river Dee, and Garthdee, on the north side. They were previously in Kincardine.

Anne Begg, principal teacher of English at Arbroath Academy, prominent Educational Institute of Scotland representative and a former Disabled Scot of the Year, argues that Labour had the highest vote in the last local elections, the largest number of councillors in the new constituency and is entitled to have the seat in its sights. "We have a 'middle' Scotland and it's Aberdeen South," she says.

She has found education and health to be the key issues in areas like Kincorth. "Parents are realising they now have to pay for school buses and music tuition . . . and school dinners are going up. It's all taxation by the back door and they realise it's the fault of the Tory Government," Ms Begg says.

The youthful looking Nicol Stephen, former Liberal Democrat MP for Kincardine before being turfed out last time by George Kynoch, now local government minister, is vying for the anti-Tory vote by stressing a neck-and-neck race with Mr Robertson. The Liberal Democrats won more votes in the 1994 and 1995 elections than the rest, according to his literature.

Like Labour, Mr Stephen points to education and health as the two most important issues. "Raymond Robertson has forced education cuts on every local authority and Aberdeen has been the second worst in Scotland, losing Pounds 8 million over two years. He's responsible," he maintains.

Having only just become a father for the second time, nursery education plays strongly among his special interests. Parents are anxious about any voucher system and teachers are confused, he says.

Aberdeen South is one of the Liberal Democrats' top three target seats in Scotland and in the top 20 nationally. Local Tories suggest their vote is hardening, although privately some admit it may not be enough to hold the changed seat.

A split opposition, however, may see Mr Robertson back in an area that confounded the pundits in 1992.

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