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Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak bowls during a campaign stop at the Stratford Lawn Bowling Club in Stratford, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2011. (Geoff Robins/Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)
Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak bowls during a campaign stop at the Stratford Lawn Bowling Club in Stratford, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2011. (Geoff Robins/Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

Hudak backs away from 'foreign workers' issue Add to ...

Tim Hudak is moving on.

After more than a week talking about “foreign workers” and “affirmative action” at every possible opportunity, the Progressive Conservative Leader has dropped his attacks on the Liberals’ plan to create a $10,000 tax credit for employers who hire immigrants. His campaign has instead launched a bid to reignite its base and get away from an issue that dominated the debate but stalled support for the party in key regions.

The decision to back off highlights a fundamental shift in the tone of the Ontario election campaign, which has so far been fought on an issue that didn’t exist before the writ dropped. Polls suggest the Conservative Party is losing support in the Greater Toronto Area after a week of warning about the dangers of foreign workers. Now it wants to start pushing its own agenda rather than attacking the Liberals.

It’s easy to see why. The issue is delicate, and if the tone isn’t right, it could alienate the immigrant community that conservative political parties have spent the better part of a decade courting.

“There are other things to talk about,” a senior Conservative source said on Wednesday.

The dangers of stressing the divisive issue were clear on Tuesday night when Mr. Hudak addressed party faithful at a Lions Club hall in Kingsville. After Mr. Hudak mentioned the program and slammed Mr. McGuinty over it, someone in the crowd yelled “bastard.” Mr. Hudak didn’t hear him properly and had him repeat it, but when he realized what the man had said, moved on to something else.

After spending Monday criticizing the proposed credit and Tuesday attacking the Liberals over cost overruns and high-paid consultants at eHealth Ontario, Mr. Hudak on Wednesday read from his own playbook as he promised to attach monitoring bracelets to dangerous offenders and make the province’s sex-offender registry public so people know if an offender moves into their neighbourhood.

The party’s tough-on-crime stand has tested well with focus groups, party insiders said. As the Conservative campaign struggles to find momentum – a poll released on Wednesday suggested the party is in third place in the GTA – Mr. Hudak is anxious to get his message across. But the Liberals are making his morning press conferences difficult by distributing all of the Conservative materials to reporters an hour before Mr. Hudak speaks.

The Liberals say there is a leak within the Conservative party. The Conservatives insist that the press materials aren’t secret, and that they are happy to have them sent out to as many people as possible. But for the Liberal war room, having the Tories’ information so early in the day provides an opportunity to sabotage their opponent’s events.

Two Liberal party staffers are trailing the Tory campaign, and they have been allowed into events if they don’t cause a distraction. But on Tuesday in Chatham, they handed out bags of Chicken McNuggets outside a manufacturing plant photo op to mock Mr. Hudak’s one-time expense claim for the deep-fried McDonald’s menu staples.

While Conservative staffers winced, they weren’t overly concerned. That changed Wednesday, when the same Liberal staffers arrived at a morning press conference about sex offenders and handed out fake GPS bracelets wrapped in paper that read “Manufactured by Ontario PC cronies.” The Conservative campaign took the bracelets as an insult to the people who agreed to discuss their concerns about sex offenders in their community, and pressed reporters to get the families’ opinions of the stunt.

They stopped short of banning the Liberal staffers from Hudak events – where they are a steady presence with their video cameras and tripods – but hinted that their tolerance would only go so far.

With a report from Adam Radwanski

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