We have to start taking Dalton McGuinty seriously because the heavy odds are that he will become Ontario's 24th premier.The Liberal Party that he leads is 17 points ahead of the governing Progressive Conservatives in the latest poll, which would give it 72 of the 103 seats in the legislature. With less than a week until the Oct. 2 vote, the Tories have sagged. They may not yet have thrown in the towel, but there's an awfully big facecloth lying in the middle of the ring.
The questions about Mr. McGuinty, 48, are not so much about his policy -- there can't be too many people in Ontario who don't know that he won't follow in the Conservatives' tax-cutting footsteps -- as about what style of government he will lead.
How will he deal with the high expectations that his "choose change" campaign has spawned? How will he handle the mid-course corrections that changing economic circumstances will require? Can he switch from being an opposition politician who sweet-talks special interests to a premier who has to say "no" dozens of times a day?
The public record on Mr. McGuinty has become well known since he became Liberal leader in 1996. One of 10 children born to a larger-than-life Ottawa university professor and a hard-working nurse. Inherited his MPP's role when his father died in office in 1990. Married to his high-school sweetheart with four photogenic children. A disciplined workaholic who is fastidious about his diet.
He carries, as well, a reputation for being wooden and overprogrammed. Some of this stems from his failed 1999 election bid after which he overhauled the Liberal Party and engaged consultants to hone his communications skills. The image of a robotic politician is given new life every time he employs scripted answers to stymie reporters, but he says it's a bad rap.
"Don't confuse staying on message with me being who I am," Mr. McGuinty said yesterday at a meeting of The Globe and Mail editorial board. He said the realities of politics require that he stick to a coherent message to avoid confusing voters. But he stressed that he's the one who shaped the Liberal campaign and its central message that government has to sustain universal social programs.
"Have I had a bit more help in terms of communication? Absolutely. Do I work at staying on message? You're damned right I do, that's part of my responsibility," he said. "But in terms of what I'm running on and who I'm speaking to, that's just from me."
Does Mr. McGuinty have the steel in his spine that a premier needs? Just look at my record, he replies. It's a claim he can make with some justification. His campaign has been remarkable in that it has consistently said further tax cuts could not be afforded. It may be the dominant opinion in Ontario now but it wasn't in April, 2001, when he told a Bay Street audience that had been devoted to Conservative policies that there would be no further reductions in corporate or personal income taxes.
Since then, Mr. McGuinty has told seniors that under a Liberal government, they won't be getting the property-tax relief the Tories have pledged and he has warned homeowners there will be no rebate on their mortgage-interest payments. And still he soars in the polls.
"We are where we are right now because I've had to say 'no' to a lot of people," he said. "Being in government will also require that I say 'no' to a number of people." He warned teachers, for example, that they should not confuse his support for public education with advocacy for teachers. "My job is not to advance the cause of teachers," the Liberal leader said. "My job is to advance the cause of public education."
Mr. McGuinty's determined words will be sorely tested -- and perhaps abandoned -- if he does become premier. The Ontario Medical Association, for example, is girding for a fight over fees and many other groups would undoubtedly be disappointed if the grievances built up during the Tory era were not dealt with quickly. At this stage, however, he has to be given the benefit of the doubt.