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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

McGuinty now harder to back into corner

By MURRAY CAMPBELL
Globe and Mail
Thursday, Sep. 4, 2003

VAUGHAN, ONT. — Liberals in Ontario haven't forgotten the disasters of the past two elections, in which they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.You don't easily forget squandering double-digit leads in the course of a month-long campaign.

But the people around Dalton McGuinty believe it's unfair to say they are haunted by 1995 and 1999. They say they took the lessons of those contests and moved on.

That's not the way the governing Progressive Conservatives see it, of course. They are counting on Mr. McGuinty to look as insecure and unsure of himself as he was at many points last time out. They want voters to see that he is, as their radio ads say, "still not up to the job."

Anything can happen in politics, but two days into the current campaign the benefit of the doubt has to go to Mr. McGuinty. He is looking confident and relaxed, a far cry from the defensive, brittle posture he adopted in the last campaign.

He's got a tight, seven-minute stump speech that he delivers without notes and yet varies with seeming ease. He makes jokes, often at his own expense, and people actually laugh. The woodenness he has often shown when microphones are shoved under his chin isn't there.

Voters must have noticed something, because the polls show a turnaround in public attitude toward Mr. McGuinty. The latest Ipsos-Reid survey, for example, had him in a virtual tie with Conservative Leader Ernie Eves in the category of who would be a good premier. Considering that Mr. Eves already holds the job, it's a stunning finding.

It may simply be that voters have lowered their expectations of the Liberal Leader. But Liberals say the real difference this time is that Mr. McGuinty knows the party's platform inside and out. It's much harder these days to back him into a corner.

That's because Mr. McGuinty ripped apart his staff after the last election and he got involved on the ground floor in the party platform. As a result, he seems to know every last blessed detail in the torrent of booklets the Liberals have unleashed upon the unsuspecting public.

The platform reflects his consultations with dozens of policy wonks. The Liberals get credit for being upright enough to say that they would not reduce taxes and, indeed, would reverse some of the Tory cuts. Not much else sustains the attention, however.

There is a startling lack of the "trinkets and baubles" he accuses Mr. Eves of sprinkling around. Mr. McGuinty is counting on what he believes is an enlightened self-interest among voters -- that they will, for example, pay the price to improve public schools because that will produce "better workers and better citizens." People, he says, are "sober-minded" and simply want a "sensible plan that will help make things better for all of us."

There's no argument with that, but it's woefully weak as a rallying cry. "Choose change," which is the official slogan, isn't a whole lot better. Indeed, the Liberal campaign has an earnestness that John Denver could admire. Their campaign song actually contains these lyrics: "We are change for a generation [and] with all our drive we can make it happen." And yesterday morning, with the legislature as a backdrop, Mr. McGuinty recited a nine-point plan of his values -- take that, Mr. Eves -- in which every item started with "I believe."

I believe that another four weeks of that and I'll be thankful for a few trinkets and baubles.

It's a queer position for Liberals. This is the party, after all, that won the hearts of voters in 1985 by promising to sell beer and wine in corner stores. The pledge was never implemented, but it was a talking point that carried them to victory.

There is no equivalent this time. There is plenty of well-argued policy but no talking points. The Tories may not be able to afford all the promises they are making but, hey, this is politics, and people are talking about mortgage deductibility and the like.

The Liberals had better hope this enlightened self-interest thing catches on.



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