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Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak speaks with The Globe in his Queen's Park office on Feb 22, 2013. (MOE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak speaks with The Globe in his Queen's Park office on Feb 22, 2013. (MOE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Hudak still paying for a bad first impression Add to ...

Tim Hudak must wonder, sometimes, what more he has to do to get his critics off his back.

They said he needed a new staff and campaign team after his disappointing first election as Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader, so he cleaned house. They said he hadn’t run enough like a serious small-c conservative, so he released policy papers proposing everything from wide-scale privatization to a war with organized labour. They accused him of coming off as too glib and negative, so he stopped using props and let other MPPs take the lead on attacking the governing Liberals.

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And yet, as he prepares to address the provincial Tories’ biggest annual fundraiser on Tuesday evening in downtown Toronto, Mr. Hudak is still struggling to win the affections of his own party – let alone the broader electorate.

Of course, it’s his difficulty ingratiating himself with the latter that causes consternation among the former. While the Tories enjoy a slight lead in most polls, Mr. Hudak’s personal numbers continue to lag behind those of the province’s other two major party leaders. So there are fears that he will drag his party down enough that it loses another winnable election.

It’s unlikely those fears will result in Mr. Hudak being tossed overboard before the next campaign. A brief flurry of speculation on that front was kicked off last week when Toronto Councillor Doug Ford mused publicly about running for the Tories; the brother of Mayor Rob Ford is rumoured to have leadership ambitions of his own and is part of a crowd that has little time for Mr. Hudak. But while some grumbling is certainly coming out of caucus, there is little sign of a nascent coup.

This winter, though, it emerged that PC brass has imposed an unusual borrowing limit to restrict how much debt his campaign can run up. That could force Mr. Hudak to run more of a shoestring operation than his opponents. And the implicit message is that the party is already preparing for life after him by ensuring the next leader doesn’t start too deep in the hole.

Precisely why he’s subject to such indignities, which seem to go beyond those usually faced by leaders of parties that have grown impatient after a long time out of power, is somewhat unclear. Some think he’s lurched too far to the right, and others question his strategy of reflexively opposing everything the government does. But most criticisms of him tend to be weirdly unspecific, coming down to some variation of lacking the royal jelly – and circling back to those poll numbers.

More than anything, it seems, Mr. Hudak is still paying for making a terrible first impression on his province. Most Ontarians don’t pay close attention to opposition leaders between campaigns, so the lingering image is of an unappealing attack dog who promised to bring back chain gangs and misleadingly took aim at “foreign workers.”

It’s entirely possible that when they start paying close attention to him again, voters will decide they like him better than they thought. At the least, his efforts to rebrand himself – the hard work he has put into improving the way he presents himself, and his willingness to talk about his policy ambitions rather than just criticizing the incumbents – should by all rights earn him a second look.

No doubt, if he leads his party to victory, the armchair quarterbacks will claim they had faith in him all along. But he’d probably have an easier time doing it if they spent less time second-guessing him to begin with.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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