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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Sensing rout of PCs, NDP turning sights on Ontario Liberals

Globe and Mail
Monday, Sep. 29, 2003

OTTAWA — Howard Hampton did a land-office business yesterday in selling his ideas. About 30 people came to visit the New Democratic Party Leader when he settled in for a few minutes in a booth at Toronto's street literary festival. They put down their $20 and walked away with an autographed copy of Mr. Hampton's book, Public Power: The Fight for Publicly Owned Electricity.

New Democrats believe that Ontario voters are lining up to support Mr. Hampton in other ways, as well. They have watched as the party's ratings in opinion polls have climbed in recent days and are persuading themselves that they are again running with the big dogs.

Weekend polls showed the NDP has the support of as many as 17 per cent of decided voters, compared with just 12 per cent before last week's televised leaders debate. And party officials say their tracking in 30 key constituencies in various parts of the province shows a jump in voter preference of as much as 8 per cent.

For the previous three weeks, it appeared that the party had stalled despite a vigorous, prop-filled campaign that promoted such things as a publicly owned electricity industry and government-run vehicle insurance.

There were a variety of reasons for this: Voters were distracted with back-to-school chores and were not paying attention to its message; core NDP supporters were lining up with the Liberals to deprive the PCs of a third term; or people simply weren't buying what Mr. Hampton was selling.

The turnaround suggests all three factors have declined in importance. The initial bump up to perhaps 15 per cent is explained by New Democrats coming home because they no longer fear a Tory government.

The continued improvement in NDP fortunes -- Mr. Hampton says support in the key ridings continues to go up by 2 per cent a day -- suggests the party has attracted people who turned away from it in the early 1990s.

He believes the NDP could end up with as much as 30-per-cent support in Thursday's election while the Conservatives, fighting what he calls a "grossly over-the-top" negative campaign, could find themselves with the levels of support they got in 1987 and 1990 -- about 21 per cent.

In this scenario, the NDP Leader believes he could emerge as opposition leader. "Yeah, it's possible," he said in an interview.

You get the feeling that however much Mr. Hampton has enjoyed watching Tory rule apparently reach the end of its days, he relishes the battle with Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty.

For months, Mr. Hampton has lumped the Liberals in with the Tories in his attacks on such issues as hydro deregulation.

It's smart politics, of course, to try to create a tweedledum-tweedledee image in voters' minds, but it seems to go deeper.

The two men were classmates at law school more than 20 years ago and share not just mutual memories but mutual antipathy.

The NDP Leader is clearly enraged by what he believes is the Liberal strategy of shifting positions on certain issues in search of mainstream public opinion.

The sudden prominence in the past couple of days of a Liberal pledge to soften the Tories' antiwelfare policies suggests Mr. Hampton is on to something.

"What is annoying about the Liberals is that on almost every issue, they have at least three positions," he said.

Mr. Eves is rarely mentioned by Mr. Hampton these days, which is surely the unkindest cut to a politician claiming "we are not toast."

The NDP is convinced that the Tories are indeed toast, and has its sights aimed at Mr. McGuinty in these last four days. Application Error

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