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Ontario Premier Doug Ford tours Algonquin College Centre for Construction Facility in Ottawa on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

It may be hard for some to remember the old, pre-COVID-19 Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a combative politician so divisive even his federal Conservative counterparts refused to acknowledge his existence for the entire 2019 election campaign.

For the past six months, appearing on television daily to reassure the province as his government battles the pandemic, Mr. Ford has morphed into an affable “Premier Dad” figure who appears to speak from the heart and is riding high in public-opinion polls.

However, it’s not clear how long Ontario’s warm feelings for the Premier can last as Mr. Ford faces mounting new challenges.

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For the first time since June, Ontario recorded more than 400 new COVID-19 infections on Friday. Parents and opposition politicians have hammered Mr. Ford’s government for its refusal to mandate smaller class sizes in elementary schools to curb the risk of transmission. There are new outbreaks in long-term care homes, in the face of the Premier’s vows to stop another disaster in that sector, where more than 1,800 died in the spring and summer. This week, lineups have stretched for hours at overwhelmed COVID-19 assessment centres, with many people seeking tests turned away.

For months, the Premier’s new persona seems to have paid off in positive poll numbers. In an Angus Reid Institute survey of 1,026 Ontario residents who are members of its online forum, 45 per cent said they would vote for Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, up from 36 per cent in February. His personal approval rating in the survey, conducted between Aug. 26 and Sept. 1 and released Friday, has shot up by more than 30 percentage points, to 66 per cent. (Angus Reid says a conventional public opinion poll with a sample of this size would have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.)

“This is all about tone. ... It has been a new and a different Doug Ford. This is not the partisan ... chippier, ready-to-spoil-for-a-fight Doug Ford that came to power," said Shachi Kurl, the Angus Reid Institute’s executive director.

While she warns Mr. Ford and all other leaders could face sinking numbers if the pandemic spirals out of control this fall, she said B.C. Premier John Horgan and Quebec’s François Legault have so far avoided drawing blame for rising case counts – and Mr. Ford may do the same, for now. A broader question, Ms. Kurl says, is whether this “new Doug Ford” will still be on display two years from now, when he faces an election and other more traditional political issues surface beyond the pandemic.

The old Mr. Ford decried “scary” unelected judges and teacher “union thugs,” while lurching between controversies over patronage appointments and budget cuts, rarely speaking to reporters. The new Mr. Ford, taking questions on TV almost every day, only gets heated while expressing frustration at price-gouging businesses or partying university students. He ceaselessly praises everyone from front-line personal support workers to local mayors to Liberal Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who he describes as a friend and who has earned "absolute champion” status, a high rank in Mr. Ford’s folksy lexicon.

At a news conference with fellow conservative premiers in Ottawa on Friday, Mr. Ford monopolized the microphone, delivering his characteristic one-liners (calling partygoers in a pandemic “a few fries short of a Happy Meal”) while making it known to the room of national journalists that he’s been studying up on his French.

Some close to Mr. Ford say the Premier they now see televised each day is his authentic self, whether he is demanding “no more excuses” from his own bureaucrats on slow COVID-19 testing or responding with obvious emotion when his own mother-in-law tested positive for COVID-19 while in long-term care. Even with the legislature and Question Period restarting this week, the Premier insists on keeping up his daily TV appearances.

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“This is Doug Ford. What people are seeing now is who the Premier is,” Ontario PC House Leader Paul Calandra said in an interview. “I hear this constantly: He’s the only politician that we’ve had in a long time … who speaks to [the public] like a normal person.”

But this new Mr. Ford will soon be facing challenges unlike any other recent Ontario premier. If his government’s back-to-school process – in which it vetoed a Toronto school board proposal for smaller elementary class sizes at the last minute – results in major outbreaks, the goodwill Mr. Ford has earned could evaporate. Never mind that the province’s deficit – a budget is due in November – was last projected at $38.5-billion and counting.

Mr. Calandra says making back-to-school work is the government’s top priority and that the Premier has repeatedly said he will take ownership of it.

“He’s always said that if something happens, he is the one who takes responsibility for it,” he said. “But I think people understand that we’re all doing our best at all levels.”

David Tarrant, a former aide to Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper who was Mr. Ford’s director of strategic communications until last May, acknowledges that part of the boost in support – shared by some other leaders in Canada and around the world in this pandemic – is what political scientists call the “rally round the flag” effect, a large but usually temporary bump common for leaders facing severe crises such as wartime.

“From a political standpoint ... This is is not going to last. It’s going to drop back down as things like the economic toll of the lockdown hurt,” Mr. Tarrant said. “And certainly the Premier knows this, and the people around him know this.”

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One source in the Premier’s inner circle said his top aides were working with him long before COVID-19 to try to make him more comfortable and less confrontational in front of the camera or when taking questions from the media. And the crisis has given the Premier a chance to put it into practice.

The old Mr. Ford still surfaces: In the legislature on Thursday, after repeated questions from Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, he angrily accused her of being an "armchair quarterback” and “hiding in your basement for the last five months.”

Asked about the Premier’s public support on Friday, Ms. Horwath declined to discuss his poll numbers and said Mr. Ford had not learned from the first wave of the pandemic: “The government was caught flat-footed in the first wave. ... And here we are again with a government that does not seem to be able to get in gear in time to be pro-active when it comes to COVID-19.”

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca also isn’t buying Mr. Ford’s transformation.

“For sure the tone has changed,” Mr. Del Duca said in recent interview. “Except that there are still glimpses of, I will call him, the authentic or original Doug Ford. ... There’s no one else in this province that can be blamed for how half-baked the back-to-schools plan is, aside from Doug Ford.”

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