The Conservatives were trying awfully hard to hide their smiles, but there's no doubt they were happy.For the first time in a year, the polls are showing they have a solid chance to remain in office. On Saturday morning, the papers carried two new surveys that put them within hailing distance of the Liberals, who had been so far ahead that Ernie Eves couldn't even read Dalton McGuinty's licence plate.
And so when Mr. Eves arrived that evening at the Orangeville agricultural-society building for his nomination meeting, his supporters were eating roast-beef sandwiches with glee pie for dessert.
The polls put the Conservatives at anywhere from 1.5 to five percentage points behind the Liberals, a dramatic shift from the double-digit Liberal lead that has seemed to exist since . . . forever. Excluding election days, of course.
The Conservative Leader was, of course, too smart to indulge in this. Like most politicians, he adheres to the Snapshot School of Polling, which decrees that bad polls are always dismissed as a fleeting pulse-taking and thus good polls have to be treated the same way. "I never get too up . . . or too down," he said on Saturday.
In any case, the polls may not be entirely accurate.
Conservative strategists mingling among the 500 high-spirited Eves supporters wished they could trust the media polls, but suggested their own surveys showed the Liberals still had a sizeable -- but trimmed -- lead. And senior Liberals said their polling shows they enjoy a lead of up to six points.
None of the backroom gang is surprised by the events of the first week of campaigning for the Oct. 2 election. They know their history -- they know that Ontario is a place where voters by default opt for the Conservatives unless given a compelling reason not to. That's why the Tories have been out of office for only 10 years since 1943.
The challenge for the opposition parties, particularly the Liberals, in the next three weeks is to persuade voters that there is a compelling reason to deny Mr. Eves his own mandate. They have to remind the people who hated Mike Harris's government that they should hate his successors, too.
The Conservative Leader doesn't make this easy. Ontarians do not seem to have the same visceral, love-him-or-hate-him attitude that they had toward Mr. Harris. They may not have a clear idea where Mr. Eves stands on a particular issue, but the fact that there are few demonstrations attending his public appearances suggests the temperature is way, way down.
But the polls suggest the opposition parties can keep down Mr. Eves's ratings if they can pin on him all their frustrations with the health and education systems. An EKOS Research Associates survey published yesterday found these issues are still fundamental to Ontarians -- 93 per cent said health care was their priority, while 88 per cent said it was education.
Mr. Eves spent the first week of the campaign tightly focused on the Conservatives' plan to cut taxes further, particularly for certain groups such as seniors and homeowners.
This is an issue that the Tories own, but the Ekos poll found that just 49 per cent of the electorate rates tax reductions as its priority. This suggests that perhaps the Conservative Leader is harping on the wrong issue.
Now, it's not a bad thing when you get half the public saying they want more of what only you can deliver. After all, the Tories need only about 43 per cent of the votes to be re-elected, but it's unlikely that all of the 49 per cent support for tax cuts will transfer to them. There are simply too many other factors -- voters' attitudes about who would make the best premier, or the desire for change -- that factor in.
Mr. Eves says tax cuts are needed for economic growth and the revenue needed to pay for health and education programs. The Liberals ask why, with all the growth in the past eight years, has the number of people unable to find a family doctor soared?
The winner of this debate will win the election.