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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Odd campaign is getting even odder

By MURRAY CAMPBELL
Globe and Mail
Friday, Sep. 26, 2003

One party leader spends the day in a mad dash around the vast expanses of Ontario while his principal rival contents himself with a single, low-key public event.Your chore is to match the itinerary to either Conservative Leader Ernie Eves or his Liberal counterpart, Dalton McGuinty. Be careful -- the answer is about as counter-intuitive as it gets.

Voting day in Ontario is just a week away. The Liberals have declared Mr. McGuinty the winner of Tuesday night's debate and are privately dreaming of the spacious new offices they will move into at Queen's Park after the Oct. 2 election. The Conservatives, 20 points behind, are pledging to fight to save civilization as we know it.

Thus, it is surprising that it was Mr. Eves who had a relatively relaxing day yesterday. Yes, he attended the funeral near Kingston of an OPP constable and he had a private meeting with the editorial board of the Toronto Sun after which he talked to reporters in a scrum that had to be postponed by 75 minutes because the Tory campaign forgot to alert anyone. And, indeed, he has to attend to government affairs.

But his only public event came in the evening -- too late for supper-hour television news programs -- when he visited a Tory candidate's headquarters in Scarborough. An attention-getting whirlwind it wasn't.

Mr. McGuinty, by contrast, was on his bus by 7 a.m. in Ottawa for an event in Renfrew, an hour's drive away. His day ended more than 14 hours later after another boisterous party rally in St. Thomas. In between, he squeezed in the OPP funeral, an editorial board meeting at the London Free Press and a speech in Kitchener.

It has been an odd campaign. Quite apart from the diversion provided by the kitten-eater incident, it has featured a sharp attack on the Tories by one of the architects of the Common Sense Revolution and the phenomenon of voters warming to a party that promises not to cut their taxes.

It is getting even odder. The Conservatives, instead of embarking on a frenzy of vote-getting activity, seem to be back on their heels. Their strategy -- if that's not too grand a word for what amounts to an evacuation from Dunkirk -- seems to be to try to put limits on the Liberal landslide. The party is trying to rally its hard-core supporters to keep the floor of its support from collapsing.

In the harshest language, Mr. Eves continues to predict the horsemen of the Apocalypse will accompany a Liberal victory while some of his candidates try to exploit the simmering controversy over same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer likely needed the aid of a chiropractor yesterday after promoting the Tory pledge to ban teachers' strikes -- a gambit she used to vigorously denounce as wrongheaded.

The Tories promise that Mr. Eves will hit the road this weekend for the duration of the campaign. The Liberals, who are so far ahead in the race that they are in a different area code, show no signs of slowing down. Not that Mr. McGuinty is saying anything new, of course. The idea seems to be to keep him moving so fast that nothing sticks to him and to get his face on TV and front pages in as many regional markets as possible.

It helps that the he has (with the aid of the U.S. consultants) polished his ability to bob and weave around reporters' questions but there are signs that he is packing in so many events that he is hurting himself. He ran an hour late at times on Wednesday and yesterday he was late for the OPP funeral.

Reporters are grumbling that there isn't anything to report on or, if there is, that the hectic schedule leaves no time for filing.

It's enough to make you wonder why, in the supercharged, 24/7 news environment, we need election campaigns that have to last at least 28 days. And it's enough to elicit a small prayer of thanksgiving that Mr. Eves didn't take advantage of the fact that he could have called a 56-day campaign.



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