The east Kent constituency of South Thanet has been catapulted to the forefront of British politics after local Ukip members selected the party leader, Nigel Farage, to be their general election candidate, setting up an intriguing battle with a Tory candidate who once headed Ukip himself.
In many ways ideal Ukip territory, the Conservative-held constituency – described by one expert as "an economically stagnant coastal seat, where there are lots of older, white and angry voters" – has long been regarded as Ukip's best chance of getting an MP.
While Farage had insisted he was "no shoo-in" before Tuesday night's selection vote in central Ramsgate, he was the only one of the four nominees to have been tailed around the town's historic seafront by a BBC camera crew; even in the driving rain, voter recognition was strong.
"I hope you'll be representing us Nigel," RAF veteran Paul Stoner shouted across a street as the Ukip leader walked by, cigarette in mouth. For Stoner, Farage would be an ideal MP due to "talking common sense". Echoing a sentiment among others who encountered Farage on his walkabout, the pensioner added: "I am not a prejudiced man but I think we are overpopulated and have too many immigrants here, and that includes Ramsgate."
Further along the promenade, Farage and his small entourage stopped in Corby's Tea Rooms, where he was given a warm reception by owners Len and Pat, who cited local concerns about overcrowded schools and NHS.
"There are a lot of people, and not just here, who see their country going to pot and they feel that he can do something about it," added Pat, formerly of Bermondsey, south London. Pat said she no longer felt the district was "my town" when she returned.
"A lot of people do agree with him and a lot of people are offended by him but I think it's horses for courses, isn't it?"
To Farage, the constituency is familiar territory; he contested it in 2005, though won just 5% of the vote. As he strode the harbour front on Tuesday however, he was confident that the wind was in his sails, pointing to factors in his favour ranging from Ukip's recently elected crop of local councillors to the impact on the area of decisions made elsewhere.
"You see a place with an amazing heritage in history, and people are rightly proud of where it is and what it is," said Farage. "And yet it feels like the end of the line, that something has gone wrong. The mining has gone and manufacturing, Pfizer, has gone.
"Support for us on Europe is 100% here," he said, gesturing to the harbour. "Yes there are some pretty nice boats owned by rich people but you have a fishing industry that has been wiped out by European policy."
Admitting that voters in the past had not seen Ukip as a credible alternative, he added: "Messages have their time and you can be too early with them. But the other factor is that it's not just about the policy. It's about having a credible organisation in place."
A poll conducted in July by the Conservative Lord Ashcroft showed that Ukip was currently ahead in the constituency, with 32% against 30% for the Conservatives, who will be represented by Craig Mackinlay, who led Ukip in the late 1990s but defected in 2005. Labour, on 27%, are also likely to fancy their chances of gaining from a split rightwing vote.
At the last election Laura Sandys won the seat for the Tories with a majority of 7,617. But she has decided to stand down, citing family demands.
The constituency is in many ways "classic Ukip territory", according to Matthew Goodwin, an expert on Ukip and co-author of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain.
Citing the area's economic difficulties and Ukip-friendly voter demographic, he said: "The local political factors play to Farage as well; the local Conservative MP is standing down, removing any incumbency factor, while the Tories have decided to stand an old Ukip activist as their candidate, which risks alienating anti-Ukip tactical voters who might otherwise have flocked behind a more centrist candidate.
"Add to that the fact that Ukip have been fighting the seat since 2001, that Farage knows the seat like the back of his hand and has lots of activists in the Kent area who can be pulled in to support his campaign, and you begin to see why the seat offers something of a perfect storm to Ukip's increasingly confident leader."
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