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How the Liberals took Ontario

Globe and Mail Update

Dalton McGuinty took his first step toward Thursday's victory the night he conceded defeat in the 1999 election.

He did not hesitate when his closest friends asked him if he wanted to remain as Liberal Party Leader or get out of the public spotlight to enjoy life with his wife, Terri, and their four teenaged children. He told them he was determined to learn from the defeat and to build a stronger Liberal Party that could match and exceed the Progressive Conservatives in all the areas of a modern campaign.

 "It was like a nanosecond. He had no doubts. No one should underestimate the determination of the man," said one of the people who was in the room when the Liberals watched the dispiriting results.

 Then Mr. McGuinty went before the television cameras to promise his supporters - correctly, as it turned out - that things would be different the next time the two parties squared off in an election. "I want to tell you we will continue to fight for all those things the majority of this province believe in. . . . And it will be my privilege to lead that fight," he said on June 3, four years ago.

 He set out the themes that the Liberals would build into their winning platform, themes that had not found sufficient resonance with voters in 1999. Liberals, he said, would offer "some of those things that Ontarians simply have to be able to count on - good schools, good hospitals, good health care, good education and something else . . . We want to bring an end to fighting so we can finally start working together."

But Mr. McGuinty and his closest advisers had learned during the 1999 campaign that positive themes fall far short of winning a modern election. The campaign organization was woefully short of people, expertise and preparation. "A lot of things that we accomplished in this [2003] election represented years of work to get us to where we could do it and do it well," one veteran Liberal said. Central to all this, however, was Mr. McGuinty's insistence that the party stick with the positive themes that won it 40 per cent of the vote in 1999, when the Tories retained power with 45 per cent of the votes.

 Mr. McGuinty repeatedly turned down proposals for political gimmicks such as tax cuts, or the development of policy wedge issues to fight those brought forth by the Tories to appeal to specific groups of voters, including private-school tax credits and tax breaks for seniors.

 "Stuff that looks like a no-brainer now that we've won was not conventional wisdom a year or two ago. He was the one who said, `No more tax cuts. People have had enough of tax cuts.' He was the one who said, `I want to run a positive campaign' when other people were saying we needed wedge issues," a strategy adviser said.

The allure of tax cuts was especially hard to resist. The Tories had succeeded with tax cuts. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton had offered a tax cut. But Mr. McGuinty insisted voters would accept a Liberal Party that argued the money would be better spent elsewhere. Another strategy that was hard to resist would have put Mr. McGuinty at the centre of a U.S.-style campaign, focused on negative advertising and attacks on the Tories. The Conservatives had done this successfully under the guidance of U.S. Republican campaign guru Mike Murphy.

 The most memorable aspects of the previous two campaigns were the television ads. In 1995, one portrayed former Liberal leader Lyn McLeod as a weather vane changing policy to go along with the political winds. In 1999, one ad capitalized on voters' lack of familiarity with Mr. McGuinty, surrounding him with question marks to argue, "He just isn't up to the job." The Liberals knew they would face this strategy from the Tories again in this election. To counter it, they consulted with David Axelrod, a political adviser to the Democratic Party in the United States.

 Mr. McGuinty travelled to Chicago to look at ways to deal with negative campaigning. But he resisted the U.S. political maxim, "Go dirty or go home." Instead, the Liberals turned to a Canadian ad man, Peter Byrne, who had participated in designing the I Am Canadian commercial that brought national attention to a beer brand.

 He helped craft the highly unusual ads that had Mr. McGuinty speaking about his political beliefs, first in a barren loft, and then to the crowd at his nomination meeting in Ottawa South. While critics panned them, they won over voters. And they sold Mr. McGuinty's sincerity.

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