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Flaherty to seek top job if Eves quits

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Orangeville, Ont. — Ontario Enterprise Minister Jim Flaherty has signalled his plan to seek the Tory leadership if, as expected, outgoing Premier Ernie Eves steps down in the near future.

Mr. Flaherty was one of a handful of strong Conservative MPPs who retained their seats, and used his victory speech in the riding of Whitby-Ajax last night to declare the need to continue the Common Sense Revolution begun eight years ago by Mike Harris.

"Our great party stands at another crossroad," he declared, a reference to more-moderate members of the PC Party who argue it lost power because it continued to adhere to right-wing policies.

He rejected this kind of thinking. "Our great journey has only just begun" in cutting taxes and government spending, Mr. Flaherty insisted.

Joining Mr. Flaherty in the Tory ranks will be several experienced outgoing cabinet ministers, including Transport Minister Frank Klees, Northern Development Minister Jim Wilson and Tourism Minister Tim Hudak, whom many Tories see as another potential leader.

Other veterans who were re-elected for the Conservatives included Joe Tascona, Norm Miller, Ted Chudleigh, Bill Murdoch, John O'Toole, Julia Munro and Garfield Dunlop.

Mr. Flaherty's bid for the leadership was strengthened with the defeat of Tony Clement, a fellow right-winger, in the riding of Brampton West-Mississauga.

Mr. Eves was gracious and thoughtful in defeat last night, telling a gathering of fewer than 100 supporters in his home riding that the Tories should be proud of the way they transformed Ontario over the past eight years.

"I want to speak in particular to my Progressive Conservative colleagues who were not elected tonight. You have been a positive force for change in Canada," Mr. Eves said, as some supporters wiped tears from their eyes.

"You have helped turn this province of Ontario around," he said. "I want you to take pride in what you've accomplished."

Mr. Eves maintained throughout the campaign that he would remain as MPP for Dufferin-Peel-Wellington-Grey if elected. But he has been coy about whether he would retain the leadership of the Tory party.

Senior party members said yesterday that Mr. Eves will probably resign as leader as soon as an interim leader can be selected.

Tom Long, former party president, will also feel some pressure to run. He was an architect of the Common Sense Revolution as well as a candidate for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, and the party needs somebody with his access to Bay Street financiers.

Insiders have been complaining that corporate donors who traditionally bankroll the Tories became less generous last month as the party began slipping in the polls and a Liberal government seemed inevitable.

Picking another leader will be a costly exercise, and will only aggravate the party's rumoured $8-million to $10-million debt.

The PC's financial problems might even be worse than after the 1990 election — when Tory headquarters were shut down and the party ran its operations from the office of then-leader Mike Harris. The current Liberal government is more likely to attract corporate donations than Bob Rae's NDP government.

As for Mr. Eves, his party probably won't give him a choice about whether to step down. He looked like a lonely figure yesterday morning, walking up a long dirt road from his tour bus to a red-brick community centre that served as a polling station in the hamlet of Mono Mills, Ont. It was his first public appearance in a month in which he wasn't surrounded by crowds of cheering supporters.

Even his partner, Isabel Bassett, left him alone in front of the television cameras as he stuffed his paper ballot into the cardboard box. He gestured for her to come closer, but she kept her distance from the cameras. "I don't want to get in your shot," she said.

The only other item on Mr. Eves's agenda before the election yesterday was a quick stop at his campaign office in Orangeville. It was a sober affair, as Mr. Eves walked around the small office and shook hands with about 20 supporters. He also stood in the cold rain for a few minutes for group photos with staff and reporters.

At both of his appearances before the polls closed, Mr. Eves repeated the encouragement he had been offering to Tory supporters throughout the difficult final week of the campaign, as it became clear that his government would lose power.

"I feel great, very positive," Mr. Eves said, unconvincingly. "I just urge all our campaign people to get out and get the vote out."

Mr. Eves appeared to need some rest. He remained jovial and relaxed during the final days of the campaign, but the strain of visiting 90 ridings and facing reporters every day during the month of September had left Mr. Eves with a weak voice and faltering focus.

He frequently carried a water bottle at public events, as he tried to soothe what he described as laryngitis. His speeches in front of large audiences often inspired genuine fervour, but as crowds dwindled during the final week of the campaign he appeared to lose enthusiasm for his own rhetoric.

Worse, he began making embarrassing slips of the tongue during the campaign's final days. His warnings about the potential dangers of a Liberal government included phrases that essentially acknowledged a Liberal win was inevitable.

At a rally in Stoney Creek, Mr. Eves even introduced his own candidates as "our four Liberal, ah, four Conservative candidates," and the TV cameras caught him briefly lifting his hands toward his face in a gesture of horror at his own mistake.

In that same speech, Mr. Eves drifted off-message again and described Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty as having a "little, sharp pointy head."

"He's just tired," an aide said afterward, and Mr. Eves later explained that the outburst was caused by "frustration."

But Mr. Eves never seemed truly distraught over his inability to achieve a last-minute comeback. If anything, he grew more relaxed during the campaign's final days. When reporters persisted with questions about his "pointy head" comment, he made a self-deprecating joke: "I've been called a lot worse things than that, believe me," he said. "In fact, I would take that as a compliment these days."

The same self-effacing sense of humour surfaced in a speech to the Toronto Board of Trade. His first words of the morning were a joke alluding to the fact that he had quit a well-paid job on Bay Street to lead what turned out to be a short-lived government.

"What's the old adage about quitting while you're ahead?" he said, earning rueful laughs.

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