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Columnist Adam Radwanski. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Columnist Adam Radwanski. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Horwath could be biggest wild card over Ontario campaign's final weeks Add to ...

Andrea Horwath has been all but counted out of Ontario’s election by the media, her opponents and even some members of her own party.

But as underwhelming as the NDP Leader’s effort has been through the first month, political obituaries are premature.

There is reason to believe that, in the last nine days of campaigning, Ms. Horwath could finally make herself more of a factor. If she succeeds in doing so, it could dramatically change the complexion of a campaign in which Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals are trying to rally the centre-left behind them in a fight with Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives.

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Ms. Horwath’s first and most obvious remaining opportunity is Tuesday’s leaders’ debate. After she has been overshadowed by the other two major-party leaders through most of the campaign, this is her chance to share equal stature with them. Lacking an ambitious policy agenda, she can be expected to try to score populist points by sympathizing and expressing anger on behalf of Ontarians struggling to make ends meet – and by aggressively targeting Ms. Wynne for what she calls Liberal “corruption.”

If Ms. Horwath is able to get a bit of momentum out of the debate, she could then build on it by making an advantage of something that has been a disadvantage for her so far.

The New Democrats really haven’t been competing on advertising – something made abundantly clear by the latest data from the “Listening Post Network,” an online panel set up by Innovative Research Group in partnership with The Globe and Mail to give a better sense of how the campaign is playing with Ontarians.

Between May 28 and June 1, 1,200 participants were shown the parties’ TV ads and asked if they had seen them before. Of the two spots the NDP has aired, neither was familiar to more than 20 per cent of respondents. By contrast, several of the other two parties’ ads had been seen by more than 40 per cent.

What the survey also found, however, was that the NDP’s ads could be highly effective if they reached a broader audience. A negative NDP spot tallying “wasted tax dollars” was not only well-received by respondents who self-identified as New Democrats or Tories; it also appeared to have an unsettling effect on Liberals, with 48 per cent saying they found it credible, and 16 per cent saying it made them less likely to vote for the party they usually support. (Only 5 per cent of Liberals said a comparable negative ad by the PCs made them likely to abandon their party.)

Meanwhile, a positive spot showing Ms. Horwath in her hometown of Hamilton drew the best response of any ad shown to the panel. In addition to New Democrats, vastly more Liberals and unaligned voters viewed it positively than negatively; 42 per cent of the former and 35 per cent of the latter said it made them more likely to vote NDP.

That matters because, unable to raise as much money as the other two major parties, the NDP may have back-loaded its expenditures. In other words, in the final week before an end-of-campaign blackout kicks in, it could finally match or conceivably even exceed the other parties’ advertising.

If that proves the case, and follows a strong debate performance by Ms. Horwath, it may still not be enough for the NDP to compete for government, as seemed a possibility at the campaign’s outset.

But the biggest threat to Ms. Wynne’s return to the premier’s office might be a late rally by the New Democrats, in which they pull away centre-left voters while destabilizing Liberal support with more aggressive and effective attacks than the ones levelled by Mr. Hudak. For all her troubles so far, Ms. Horwath is the biggest wild card heading into the race’s final leg.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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