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Is McGuinty Starting to Sweat?

You know it's unpredictable when leaders start making things up. This week, Mr. McGuinty launched a new jobs plan that's not in his platform, announced a negotiating position for the OMA talks and cancelled a powerplant that looks more like a powerplant than a field.

With the kick-off to Ontario's 40th general election on Oct. 6, The Huffington Post Canada kicks off its coverage with lively, ongoing debates between three of the smartest and most plugged-in politicos in the province: John Duffy arguing for the McGuinty camp; Jason Lietaer (@jasonlietaer) in Hudak's corner; and Heather Fraser (@ottawafraser) duking it out for Horwath. Check in with every weekday for the freshest and best election coverage on the web.

John Duffy (Liberal):

Funny day today -- and Shana Tova to all readers celebrating New Years. The earned media bubble around the campaign appears to be in overdrive. "McGuinty a cornered animal," reads one headline. "Horwath has slight edge after debate, poll suggests," is another. "Is Ontario ready for NDP Government 2.0?" reads a third.

I hate to dampen a good time, but this kind of hype just doesn't accord with what appears actually to be happening in the campaign. Let's start with how Ms. Horwath is doing. A candidate who has a breakthrough debate performance starts showing up in ridings that were previously considered out of reach. So, where was the NDP bus last night? Hometown Hamilton. There's a tough fight going on in Hamilton Mountain; Liberals won it by less than 2,000 votes in 2007. That means this one is at the top of the NDP prospect list, and thus more indicative of some potential incremental NDP progress than of any kind of wave or crush, orange or otherwise. As discussed yesterday, it's a long way from being pleasantly surprised by a new face in a debate to changing one's voting intention. I wish some of the political illiterates who write headlines like "Horwarth ahead in latest poll" would take some care (including on the spelling of the NDP leader's name). All of which simply to say that there doesn't appear to be any NDP boom happening, except perhaps in some overheated newsrooms and at Cornerstone House.

As for the Conservatives, I still can't get a good feeling from their campaign as to how they intend to win. Mr. Hudak had some decent moments in the debate. His invocation of his daughter's health troubles made every parent in the province, myself included, instinctively connect with his troubles and grace in dealing with them. (So, too did Ms. Horwath's story about her son's broken arm at first, although it didn't ring entirely true and perhaps for good reason.) Still, I stand by my belief that Mr. Hudak did not make headway in the debate, and that his campaign now, after almost three weeks, appears hunkered down in a narrow-cast, rally-the-base, get-out-the-vote effort that doesn't really aim at winning a week from tonight.

So despite the horserace hype, I really don't sense a whole lot of movement out there in the past two weeks. Am I missing something? Something material and measurable, that is?!

Jason Lietaer (PC):

This is an odd election. Seems like a lot of uncertainty, but little movement.

Notwithstanding all the breathless headlines, there is a lot going on. John's question lays out a differing approach our leader and Mr McGuinty are taking -- they are very different ways to try to win the last week of the campaign.

Remember when Paul Martin started to sense he couldn't pull it out? He invoked the notwithstanding clause in the debate to howls of derision and living rooms full of confused looks. He did it because he wanted to shake things up. That's a little of what I feel about the McGuinty campaign.

You know it's unpredictable when you start making things up. This week, Mr McGuinty launched a new jobs plan that's not in his platform, announced a negotiating position for the OMA talks and cancelled a powerplant that looks more like a powerplant than a field. Not one of those decisions is part of his plan.

Voters are perceptive. They can tell when you're making it up. And Mr McGuinty, this week, is making it up. This kind of behavior leads to mistakes. And it's especially dangerous when the economic headwinds are blowing. Remember when John McCain "suspended" his campaign for bank talks? It didn't work because Obama looked more steady. I almost feel like we're ready for the same kind of moment with Mr. McGuinty.

Will his flailing (both literal in the debate and policy-wise this week) work? Hard to tell. Sometimes it looks like passion. Sometimes desperation.

All I know is this: you can't sell the dual messages of stability and panicked activity. I can just imagine the meeting in Liberal HQ last night where everyone said, we've got to DO SOMETHING. They've done something, all right. And in some cases, they're running against themselves.

Heather Fraser (NDP):

I have to admit I don't mind the headline "Horwath ahead in latest poll" nearly as much as John. I also don't think it's undeserved. In fact when Angus Reid says 81 per cent of people felt Horwath performed well in the debate, and more voters said they had switched their vote to NDP than to the Tories or Liberals (who trailed both) there's a pretty compelling reason for the headline. I thought Andrea Horwath rocked the debate.

And now the question is will the momentum hold. We know it will take a few days of people's opinions to gel. They need to chat with friends and neighbours and over the dinner table before. Voting intention will firm up , as it does, as we move closer to the big day. The job for our respective leaders is to continue to get their message out -- clearly.

A friend of mine calls the last week of the campaign "the silly season" when politicians begin to panic and stay from their core messages. Switching focus at this point is rarely a good strategy and so far Horwath has continued offering a positive choice based on the core elements of her platform. That's because there is no panic in the NDP headquarters. For the record, Hamilton Mountain and Scarborough Rouge River are both pick up ridings for the NDP. Tomorrow she heads to Sarnia Lambton, London Fanshawe and Windsor West. We don't hold these ridings either -- yet.

As for Mr. McGuinty's jobs plan adjustment which Jason talks about, the facts remain: both the Liberals and Conservatives want to hand out blank cheques to corporations that send jobs out of the province. The NDP plan is pretty simple: create a job, get a tax credit. Invest in infrastructure in Ontario, get a tax credit. It's amazing to me that Dalton McGuinty may be spending as much as $1 billion to cancel the Mississauga Gas Plant. Which will Dalton McGuinty invest in more: cancelling a project he approved or creating jobs?

John Duffy, political strategist for the Ontario Liberal election campaign, is also the founder of StrategyCorp and author of author of 'Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada.' Jason Lietaer, the Hudak campaign's communications director, is also the vice president of public affairs of Enterprise Canada. Heather Fraser, representing the NDP, is the director of communications for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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