By Geoffrey Stevens
Liberal candidate Eric Davis posed the question at the very beginning of an all-candidates forum in Kitchener-Waterloo this week, and he repeated it a couple of times as the meeting went on:
“Do you really want Tim Hudak as premier of Ontario?”
Coming from a Liberal candidate, Davis’s question was obviously self-serving, yet it tapped into a vein of unease that runs through the province. Before the race ever began, it Hudak’s to lose. With exactly two weeks to go, he and his Progressive Conservatives have not lost it – not yet – but they are far from the winner’s circle.
The outcome could be desperately close. Polls show the Tories and Liberals in a virtual dead heat with the Conservatives perhaps still a bit ahead, but within the margin of error. Seat projections, on the other hand, suggest the Liberals will take enough seats to form a minority government.
Dalton McGuinty is a known quantity, as he should be after 15 years as Liberal leader and eight as premier. He’s been outperforming the rookie Hudak in this election. As the National Post, a newspaper that has never met a Conservative it did not adore, put it in a report the other day: “While Mr. McGuinty long ago grew comfortable with his own core beliefs, Tim Hudak does not give off the air of a man who knows his own self-narrative. For the uninitiated in the crowd, he gave no clues about who he is or why he thinks they should make him their premier.”
That was the question in Kitchener-Waterloo on Monday night at the forum sponsored by The Record. The riding has been held by Conservative frontbencher Elizabeth Witmer for 21 years. She is experienced, respected and popular. Her Liberal opponent, Davis, knew better than to attack a local icon, so he concentrated his fire on her old leader, Mike Harris, who is long gone, and her new leader, Hudak, who is clearly vulnerable. Not that it will help Davis himself; Witmer is unassailable.
The next night, Tuesday, brought an all-candidates debate in Cambridge. It, too, has been a Conservative bastion, but this time it is very much in play with Liberal Kathryn McGarry battling Conservative Rob Leone.
Cambridge was held for 16 years by retired Tory Gerry Martiniuk, one of the most obscure backbenchers at Queen’s Park, leading one audience member to say on Tuesday that Cambridge had been “seriously under-represented” for years. That was meant as a dig at Leone who, like some other Conservative candidates in the region, adopted the front-runner strategy of skipping candidate debates – in favour, Leone said when pressed, of more door-to-door canvassing.
On paper, he should be the front-runner. He inherited a plurality of 3,200 votes – the margin by which Martiniuk defeated McGarry when she ran against him in 2007. With the Tories stronger province-wide than they were in 2007, one would think Cambridge would stay blue.
Candidates and organization, however, can make a difference. Leone does not have Martiniuk’s name recognition. And McGarry is a stronger campaigner than she was in 2007. She is better organized and more polished. A critical care nurse, she brought some passion on Tuesday to the subject of health care – the long-awaited expansion of Cambridge Memorial Hospital being a major local issue.
Leone, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, knew the issues but did not generate much excitement among his listeners when he told them he has earned three university degrees, including a PhD in comparative public policy.
On Tuesday, at least, McGarry outperformed both Leone and the only other serious candidate, New Democrat Atinuke Bankole, who ran for regional council last fall and is making her first bid for provincial office.
Still, given the history of the riding and the fact that the Conservatives appear to be running more strongly across the province than they did in the last election, Leone has to be given the edge this time.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
(published Sept 22, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)