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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Necessity is the mother of mud-slinging

By JOHN IBBITSON
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2003

The Conservatives have accomplished one of two critical missions in the early days of the Ontario election campaign: They have made the vote a referendum on Dalton McGuinty.Now they face the harder task: winning that referendum.,/p>

Today is the first day that political parties in the Ontario election are allowed to air television advertising. The Conservatives, with years of experience and millions of dollars in funding, have put together a slick, tough package: One ad promotes the leadership experience of Conservative Premier Ernie Eves, while two accuse the Liberal leader of being in thrall to the teachers unions and determined to raise taxes.

"Dalton McGuinty," the message concludes: "He's still not up to the job."

The ads build on the successful Tory strategy of shifting voters' thoughts away from the many recent blunders of the government and its Premier, toward the more nebulous question of whether Mr. McGuinty, with that receding chin, is fit to govern.

This, Tory insiders acknowledge, is a strategy based on necessity.

In 1999, the Liberals under Mr. McGuinty entered the campaign with a substantial but ephemeral lead that evaporated over the following weeks, just as the Conservative election strategists were confident it would. Their polling had told them that voters, while uncertain, were mostly well-disposed to the Conservative agenda; all it would take was a good campaign to bring the wayward back into the Tory fold.

This time out, the numbers are much more discouraging for the New Blue Machine. Yes, some of the parked Liberal vote has moved into the undecided camp, but for the most part, the electors' intentions have ossified. The soft re-elect vote (those who could be persuaded to support the Tories if all their right buttons get pushed) is smaller than in 1999, and there is a firm determination among the citizenry that the time has come for a change.

For the Tories, then, the best strategy is to say to the undecided: Fine, we understand you want a change. But is this the change you want? Do you want change badly enough to put Dalton McGuinty into office, when he is so clearly not competent to meet its demands?

The problem with this strategy is that the answer might very well be: Sure, why not?

For one thing, the alternative to Mr. McGuinty is less palatable to many voters in 2003 than then-premier Mike Harris was in 1999. The Tories then were able to point to four years of firm leadership, tax cuts, a balanced budget and municipal and education reforms.

Mr. Eves, however, has offered vacillating leadership, while tax cuts and balanced budgets are old hat. The problems with education and municipal reforms live on, while the good of those reforms was interred with Mike Harris's political bones.

Then there is Mr. McGuinty himself. The Liberal leader is having a better campaign this time out than he did four years ago. He is more confident in his public appearances, he weathers the media inquisitions with greater patience, his command of the Liberal policy platform is more assured.

Between the two of them, it is Mr. Eves who is having a shakier time on the campaign trail. On Monday, for example, the Tories sent out a press release detailing Mr. McGuinty's inability to remember key financial assumptions in his campaign platform. Almost at the moment the press release arrived in e-mail boxes, Mr. Eves was embarrassing himself, unable to recall the costs of his own election platform.

The Liberals have an election strategy, too: to promote their leader without slinging too much mud back -- at least, not yet. The Liberals decided yesterday not to allow sneak peeks at their television campaign, but a source within the Liberal camp said the ads heavily promote Mr. McGuinty, while the words Ernie Eves never appear.

Things could still go wrong for the Liberals. Their platform contains several off-putting planks for middle-class voters. There is always the chance of a McGuinty meltdown at the televised debate on Sept. 23. If things start to go badly, expect the Liberals to sling mud of their own.

But barring mishap, it is entirely possible that the voters, given a choice between an existing Premier whose performance they have had more than a year to assess, and a new leader filled with energy and promises of a brighter tomorrow, will decide to give the new guy a chance.

That is the danger for the Tories of making this election a referendum on Dalton McGuinty. It's a referendum they could lose.



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