It isn't over yet, but for Ontario's governing Progressive Conservatives, the road ahead is the steepest of uphill climbs.The latest Ipsos-Reid poll is grim news for Conservative Leader Ernie Eves. It indicates that the bump in support that he was thought to be getting from his handling of last month's blackout was largely illusory. For the Conservatives, the numbers are just as bad as they were in August before the lights went out and are similar to the landscape Mr. Eves found when he became Premier 17 months ago.
Everything seems to be going against them. Six in 10 voters -- including an astonishing 14 per cent of Tory supporters -- say it is time for a change in government.
In other words, nothing has worked for the Conservatives. An array of pre-election ads seems to have had no impact. Voters apparently aren't buying the pitch that Mr. Eves is the best leader. Campaign pledges aimed at groups such as seniors and homeowners are clearly not the hit the Tories hoped for. And, most tellingly, a campaign aimed at undercutting Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty seems to be failing badly.
Despite two weeks of campaigning to project Mr. Eves as a leader, he has barely budged in the category of which leader would make the best premier.
And the Conservatives have done nothing to reverse their disastrous net momentum scores -- way more people still say their impression of Mr. Eves and his party has worsened in the past few months.
About the only glimmer of hope that the Tories have -- and it's as slim as Celine Dion's waist -- is that older people, 55 years of age and over, are still solidly in their camp.
Find a way to keep younger voters preoccupied on election day -- another rock concert perhaps? -- and they might have a fighting chance.
So what happened? At the outset of the campaign, published polls suggested that the race between the Liberals and the Conservatives had tightened considerably. Both parties said their internal surveys showed a sizable gap remained but any hope the Tories had to close it were hurt badly by the first full week of campaigning.
It was a week in which the Liberal fiscal plan was blessed by the right-leaning Canadian Taxpayers Federation, before Mr. Eves forgot the cost of his election pledges and, most notably, before a Tory press release suggested Mr. McGuinty might know something about Fluffy's mysterious disappearance.
Conservative campaign managers yesterday were saying the party could come from behind as happened in 1995 and 1999. Indeed, a turnaround could happen (although by the standards of the previous two contests it is late in happening). Bob Rae's New Democrats came out of nowhere in the last two weeks of the 1990 campaign to win. And Brian Mulroney overcame a 14-point gap after John Turner stumbled in the televised debate in the 1984 federal vote.
A few cautions are in order, however.
First, Mr. McGuinty is much better prepared than he was four years ago and a repeat in the Sept. 23 televised debate of his disastrous 1999 performance in the same event is unlikely. And, besides, the Conservatives have done such an energetic job of lowering the public's expectations of him that it's hard to see how he could underperform.
Second, it's not clear what the Conservatives could do if the Liberal Leader did self-destruct. If they go hard to the right, they worsen an existing gender gap and lose the hockey mums. If they move to the centre, they run into a political crowd and irritate their core supporters.
Negative campaigning isn't working, but what are the Conservatives going to replace it with? The Liberals' above-it-all stand is fine for an opposition party leading in the polls but not for a government with a record to defend.
What's really hurting the Tories is that they seem unable to turn the election into a discussion of whether Mr. McGuinty is ready to be premier.
The polling data suggest that voters don't really care.
The Liberal Leader's numbers in the "best premier" category are as middling as they were four years ago but the party itself is doing much, much better. The voters, it seems, are clear-eyed about Mr. McGuinty's prospects; they just want Mr. Eves out.