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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

'Kitten eater,' restless voters could sink PCs

By MURRAY CAMPBELL
Globe and Mail
Monday, Sep. 15, 2003

Dopey and sophomoric? Undoubtedly. But will the Conservative characterization of Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty as ''an evil, reptilian kitten eater'' be anything more than a one-day wonder?There won't be any definitive answer to the question until election night on Oct. 2, but meanwhile they're having fun with the comments from a Tory press release.

On the weekend, Liberal campaign workers were wearing T-shirts that said: "Call me a reptilian kitten-eater -- I want better health care."

Liberals strategists say they don't plan to raise the matter again but they're hoping voters will see the comment as symptomatic of a Tory campaign they believe has been negative.

At best, they say, it will influence how people interpret their opponents' television ads.

Conservatives are holding their breath in the hope that the public will dismiss the bizarre taunt as a joke that is worth a giggle or two and then forgotten.

But in Ontario most people pay attention to provincial politics only when they are forced to: for a fortnight every four years or so. They get their information from TV or news-radio sound bites, and "reptilian kitten eater" is about as memorable as they get.

There is a precedent for an off-the-wall remark swinging a vote. In Quebec's 1980 referendum, support for sovereignty-association among women fell away dramatically after a Parti Québécois cabinet minister compared federalists to Yvette, the meek, obedient subject of a Quebec school reader.

The focus on Friday's memo is frustrating Tory strategists, some of whom even suggest it was sent out in error.

They believe that Mr. McGuinty's "choose the high road" TV commercial masks the reality of the Liberal campaign.

They say that last winter's anti-Conservative ads by the Working Families Coalition did the dirty work and left the Liberals with clean hands.

They also believe that the media are overlooking the nastiness of the Liberals' "war room" activities.

But, mostly, they must be frustrated by their own campaign.

Conservative Party Leader Ernie Eves has been spending long days travelling Ontario -- although generally ignoring Toronto -- but his message hasn't been getting out.

Consider last week. On Monday, he wanted to talk about unwanted immigrants getting into Ontario, but that message got eclipsed when he couldn't remember the exact cost of his election promise.

The next day, the focus was on Mr. Eves's admission that health care and education would be affected by spending cuts.

On Wednesday, the Conservative Leader talked more about escalating auto insurance rates than about the planned message, a stand against same-sex marriages. A day later, he was dealing with the imprimatur that Mr. McGuinty received from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. On Friday, Mr. Eves wanted to talk about health care but instead had to talk about alien kitten-eaters.

The danger for the Conservatives is that the remark about McGuinty will be woven into the analysis of a new batch of polls expected this week, which are expected to show the Liberals with a lead of about eight points.

This is the gap that both parties say has prevailed since the campaign kickoff Sept. 2.

Strategists in both camps believe that public polls in the first week of the campaign that showed the Tories had pulled even with the Liberals were a snapshot of a very brief period after the election call and were influenced by Mr. Eves's high-profile handling of the blackout.

The prevalence of the eight-point margin is not necessarily a bad thing: The Tories have been counting on Mr. McGuinty to stumble and fall in the heated, stretch-run days before ballots are cast Oct. 2.

But the new polls will create the impression among voters that the Tories have slipped.

Mr. Eves may be able to outrun the kitten-eater controversy but this, combined with the finding that the ranks of voters looking for a change is growing, could spell doom to the Conservative re-election effort.



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