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Ontario Premier and Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty (L) shakes hands with provincial Conservative leader Tim Hudak as provincial NDP leader Andrea Horvath (C) walks past after the provincial Ontario leaders debate in Toronto September 27, 2011. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Ontario Premier and Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty (L) shakes hands with provincial Conservative leader Tim Hudak as provincial NDP leader Andrea Horvath (C) walks past after the provincial Ontario leaders debate in Toronto September 27, 2011. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Ontario leaders unwilling to engage in minority government speculation Add to ...

Provincial leaders spent Saturday sidestepping questions about the possibility of a minority government, as a new poll showed the race is too close to call with only days left in the campaign.

It appears increasingly likely that whichever party wins Thursday’s election will find themselves in charge of a minority government. That’s created a flurry of speculation about what the leaders would be willing to do to form a stable government.

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The party with the most seats could try rule from issue-to-issue as was seen in Ottawa prior to Stephen Harper’s spring majority. Or, two parties could form a coalition that would overrule the party that had actually won the most seats.

That happened in the 1985 provincial election, in which the Tories won a plurality – but not a majority – and the Liberals partnered with the NDP to take power.

A Nanos poll conducted for the Globe and Mail, CTV and CP24 released late Saturday afternoon showed the Liberals sitting at 38 per cent support to the Progressive Conservative’s 35 per cent. The NDP remained near 24 per cent.

It’s difficult to say who’s ahead – the results within the 900-person, three-day rolling sample has a margin of error of 3.5 per cent.

As the leaders criss-crossed the province Saturday, they were unwilling to engage in speculation about the makeup of the next government.

Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak held a rare second media availability in Port Colborne in the afternoon to talk about his plan to re-open the city’s emergency room, but reporters repeatedly asked about different minority scenarios.

“I can see a theme here,” he said after the third question, adding that he would not engage in any negotiations prior to the election. “My first goal is bringing in a PC government. Dalton McGuinty is the kind of guy who engages in backroom deals, but I’m not going to engage in that discussion.”

NDP leader Andrea Horwath would likely be the difference maker in any coalition. She pointedly avoided mentioning Mr. McGuinty by name at campaign stops Saturday, instead trying to differentiate herself from her Conservative rival.

Asked if the party with the most seats should form government, she twice dodged the question.

Ms. Horwath said that she will outline her policy priorities in the coming days. While officially, she continues to insist this announcement is a prelude to an NDP government, it could also serve as an indication to Messrs. McGuinty and Hudak of what they must do to earn her support.

She has scheduled an announcement for Sunday, but hasn’t said what will be unveiled.

“In the next day or so, we're going to be specific about what priorities we will have if we are to form a government,” she said at a Saturday morning campaign stop at a market in Kingsville in southwestern Ontario.

Throughout the day, she refused to tip her hand as to her postelection moves – sticking to a script of HST cuts and job creation in Ontario's industrial belt – and would not rule out co-operating with other party leaders.

Asked in Brantford if Mr. McGuinty's attacks on her character would make it hard to work with him in future, she laughed it off.

“I've got a pretty thick skin, so the premier can make those kinds of comments,” she said.

Asked repeatedly about the chances of a minority government, Mr. McGuinty deflected questions. After one question, he told a story about a hockey coach who refused to let stats get him down.

“We don’t play on paper, we play on ice,” Mr. McGuinty said at a campaign rally in Cornwall, Ont.

Even with polls showing him tied with Mr. Hudak, the Liberal leader said, “It’s not the numbers that count, it’s our plan.”

However the government looks, the Nanos poll showed voters expect the focus to be on the economy and jobs.

As the campaigns began ramping up on Sept. 1, only 16 per cent of voters identified jobs and the economy as their most important issue. In the three-day rolling poll conducted from Sept. 28 to Sept. 30, the percentage has increased to 26 per cent.

That’s where health care was sitting on Sept. 1, but it has slipped to 23 per cent in Saturday’s poll. High taxes (16 per cent) and education (10 per cent) haven’t moved much since early September.

All three party leaders have been pushing hard to identify themselves as job creators as the campaign enters its crucial final days. And while the global economy was starting to show signs of weakness in the summer, the news has grown increasingly worse in recent weeks as Europe struggles with sovereign debt crises and the United States teeters dangerously close to a double-dip recession.

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