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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne acknowledges supporters in Toronto on June 12. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne acknowledges supporters in Toronto on June 12. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Backroom strategies and scrambles in the Ontario election Add to ...

It was 7:07 p.m. on a warm Thursday in June when the Liberal campaign had its greatest scare.

Senior staff for Kathleen Wynne were a few minutes into a nightly conference call when the Ottawa Citizen posted a story about the Ontario Provincial Police collecting documents at the Ontario Legislature that day. The officers were investigating Dalton McGuinty’s former chief of staff over the alleged destruction of records related to the billion-dollar cancellations of two gas-fired power plants.

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As Bob Lopinski, head of the party’s war room, read the story over the phone, the campaign team’s hearts sank. Suddenly, the Liberals’ greatest liability had been thrust into the spotlight. A government with a history of spending scandals was making a bid for a rare fourth term, and its Achilles heel had suddenly been bared.

The June 5 story was the worst moment in the worst week for the Liberals, who were battling to keep Ms. Wynne in power after the New Democrats rejected her budget and forced a snap election. The bad news had started the previous Thursday, when the Progressive Conservatives released leaked documents revealing the Liberals were looking to bail out MaRS, a not-for-profit research organization.

Then, Ms. Wynne had a shaky debate performance, during which PC Leader Tim Hudak and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath tag-teamed her on the gas-plant scandal.

The Premier looked defensive as Mr. Hudak channelled Brian Mulroney, repeatedly asking her why she had not objected to the cancellations as a cabinet minister: “Why didn’t you just say no?”

Just one week from voting day, Ms. Wynne was in danger of losing control of the campaign.

On the night of Saturday, June 7, the Premier’s team – led by strategist David Herle and organizational guru Patricia Sorbara – convened an emergency conference call. They tore up the schedule for the rest of the campaign and redeployed.

By Monday morning, they had organized a photo opportunity at a school in Cambridge, Ont., the first of several that week, where Ms. Wynne drove two messages: that electing Mr. Hudak, with his agenda of cost-cutting, would put public services at risk; and that voting for Ms. Horwath would split her vote and help Mr. Hudak win.

It was a dramatic change for a campaign to make, especially with only five days to go. But the Premier pulled it off flawlessly, projecting a calm competence that gave no hint of the scramble behind the scenes.

“She gathered herself and went out there and I don’t think anybody saw an ounce of panic or fear in her face,” Mr. Herle said in an interview.

And in the end, it would prove enough to put the focus back on a risky but simple promise made by Mr. Hudak weeks earlier, at a country club in Barrie, that would decide the election.

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The Progressive Conservatives knew from polling that many supporters hadn’t bothered to vote in 2011 because they were uninspired by the party’s centrist platform.

So Mr. Hudak and his advisers decided to motivate them with a truly conservative plan: cuts to spending, a balanced budget, lower corporate taxes. Many Liberals, they calculated, would be angry enough over the gas plants to vote NDP or not come to the polls at all. They also looked to play to the greatest strength of the conservative brand – the economy – by promising to create one million jobs over eight years.

Such a right-wing agenda was in line with Mr. Hudak’s principles: A small-government conservative, he had cut his teeth in the budget-shrinking administration of Mike Harris in the 1990s.

At the heart of the Tory team were Ian Robertson, a former charity executive and Mr. Hudak’s chief of staff; and Clark Savolaine, a young, brainy American with a passion for policy. Amanda Philp ran the war room and strategist Geoff Owen travelled with Mr. Hudak.

The PCs calculated that the most important thing to do in the campaign was present Mr. Hudak as a serious leader. For that reason, they surprised almost everyone when they opened with a series of policy rollouts instead of attacking the Liberals.

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