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opinion

This is not the election campaign any of Ontario’s major parties expected.

Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives thought that if they could run a reasonably safe campaign, they would hold up as the only alternative to Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals.

The Liberals, despite abysmal approval ratings, thought they’d get a decent chance to compete for yet another mandate courtesy of antipathy toward Mr. Ford.

Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats hoped voters would turn to them after writing off the other two – but they didn’t seriously expect that to happen almost as soon as the race began.

Now, most polls show the NDP neck-and-neck with the Tories if not ahead, and the Liberals facing a historic collapse.

With Sunday evening’s leaders’ debate (broadcast from 6:30 to 8 p.m. ET) plunging the campaign into crunch time before the June 7 vote, we’re about to find out how much the parties are willing and able to adjust to new realities.

CAN THE TORIES BE MORE PERSUASIVE?

The PCs have taken to largely ignoring the Liberals – whose numbers they would actually prefer tick back up, to preserve left-of-centre vote-splitting – in favour of attempts to paint the New Democrats as a band of wild-eyed socialist radicals.

What the Tories still struggle to do, despite no longer being the non-Liberal default option, is make much case for themselves. Mr. Ford has made many promises – big expenditures and tax cuts, absent details on how to pay for them – but they have yet to add up to a compelling message about how he would govern differently.

Mr. Ford’s campaign team is fixated on keeping him from making mistakes, understandable given his tendency to say unhelpful things. But that has led to him looking uncomfortable in his own skin – reading scripts off Teleprompters, trying to stay out of trouble in debates and brief news conferences, avoiding unscripted interactions with voters.

Meanwhile, the PCs’ advertising seems to be aimed more at mobilizing core supporters – mostly men, middle-aged and older – than persuading new ones. Their campaign spin suggests they believe their electoral map is still favourable enough that they can win a majority of seats just by getting their vote out.

There is a case to be made that they need to shift to a broader, more ambitious pitch. That might require letting Mr. Ford loosen up enough to capitalize on some of his populist potential. Or it could involve showcasing other prominent PC candidates, such as his former leadership rivals Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney – something the Tories have oddly declined to do so far, despite Mr. Ford’s unpopularity with female voters in particular.

CAN THE NDP ADAPT TO THE SPOTLIGHT?

New Democrats obviously have the most cause to stay the course. But they may be struggling a bit with intensified scrutiny.

On Friday, Ms. Horwath’s nonchalant response to the worst candidate controversy to hit her so far – about a nominee who apparently once posted a Hitler meme on her Facebook feed – left much to be desired. Given her party’s usual difficulty wooing candidates in all ridings, she may need to improve at such tests.

Ms. Horwath will have to rise to other occasions, too. She won the campaign’s first leaders’ debate largely by staying above the fray while the other leaders went at each other. In Sunday’s, she’ll have to deal with more direct attacks.

Meanwhile, the New Democrats still face operational challenges in sealing the deal with the many voters now open to them – especially in suburban battlegrounds where they lack organization.

These are nice problems to have, but it’s improbable they were covered by the game plan at the outset.

CAN THE LIBERALS SAVE THE FURNITURE?

Until very recently, Liberals working on their central campaign seemed to genuinely believe there was a chance of turning things around. In recent days, some degree of realism appears to have set in.

Unless Ms. Wynne is somehow able to break through in the debate, it may be time for tough decisions. Set to be heavily in debt post-election, especially if their support is so low that they receive little of the province’s per-vote subsidy, they should probably cut back on advertising, leader’s tours and other expenditures.

The resources the Liberals do invest will likely be best spent trying to save younger MPPs who might lead rebuilding efforts, all of whom are at risk of being wiped out in an election with almost no safe Liberal seats.

That kind of strategy doesn’t come easy to a party almost 15 years in power, but its alternatives could be even worse.