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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 ...

“Tim’s lesson in 2011 was that he spent a lot of time talking about what the other guys did wrong but not enough time talking about what he can do,” said Mr. Robertson, a slender man with a small pair of spectacles and an impish grin.

They ran a highly targeted campaign – in part to save money and in part to better control their message. Mr. Hudak typically did one or two media events a day, most of them within driving distance of Toronto.

On the Friday morning at the end of the first week, he made the bold pledge that would define the fight. Standing in that country club, he promised to cut 100,000 jobs from the public sector to balance the budget.

“It’s not easy, I take no joy in this, but it has to be done,” Mr. Hudak told the audience. “Will it mean fewer teachers? It does.”

Nearly everyone was blindsided, including Tory MPPs.

Campaign headquarters told them the night before that Mr. Hudak would be detailing his plan for balancing the books, but did not give them the job cut figure, several later said. It was not until after the announcement that the central campaign held a conference call with MPPs.

Tories across the province heard about the issue constantly at the doors.

“I was getting some pushback in places that had been supportive before,” said Doug Holyday, who ultimately lost his Toronto seat.

Added Todd Smith, an incumbent in eastern Ontario: “It was brutal.”

Those who crafted the promise seemed genuinely not to expect it to whip up such opposition. They thought people would see it the way they did: In order to rein in spending, some tough measures would have to be taken.

“What was surprising to me was how few people concluded that we had a big fiscal problem that needed to be dealt with,” Mr. Robertson said.

***

Ms. Wynne couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She was on her campaign bus after touring an engineering firm in Kingston that morning when she heard about Mr. Hudak’s pledge.

“I was incredulous,” the Premier told The Globe and Mail. “It was amazing to me, quite frankly, and it stayed amazing to me that he would think that that would resonate with people.”

At Liberal campaign headquarters in downtown Toronto, staff were equally stunned. After watching Mr. Hudak’s announcement in their offices, they gathered in the hallways and crafted a swift response. Writer Scott Feschuk bashed off a new stump speech for Ms. Wynne as her bus rolled down Highway 401. When she reached her next stop an hour later, at a medical supply company in Trenton, she was more animated than she had been all week.

“Tim Hudak’s jobs plan is to turn paycheques into pink slips for 100,000 people,” she said. “Let me spell this out for Mr. Hudak because he is obviously struggling with this notion: You don’t create jobs by cutting jobs.”

With one announcement, Mr. Hudak had given the Liberals exactly the campaign they had dreamed of.

Over the previous year, Ms. Wynne and her team spent many hours discussing what to run on. The Premier wanted to put forward a hefty agenda in keeping with her activist background. It would ultimately include a new pension plan, billions in funding for infrastructure and raises for front-line social services workers.

In the fall, Mr. Herle – a large, extroverted man with a head of curly grey hair – hunkered down alone at his cottage outside the city. He pored over electoral maps and polling data, and tried to plot a course to victory. His conclusion was that the Liberals needed to set up a head-to-head fight with Mr. Hudak, portraying him as a radical bent on reckless cuts, while marginalizing the NDP.

Mr. Herle also saw opportunities for the party to grow its base, both by taking away traditionally left-of-centre ridings in downtown Toronto from the NDP, and by targeting seats on the fringes of the GTA held by Tories. Both places had seen an influx of middle-class, centrist voters, whether in new condos or suburbs, that he felt were natural liberals.

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