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The baptism into politics that Ernie Eves received a generation ago has left him with the unshakable belief that winning elections is never easy.

He won a seat in the legislature on his first try in 1981 by a margin that was so meagre - just six votes - that the nickname Landslide Ernie stuck to him for years. The margins got bigger in the six elections that followed but that initial impression remained.

"Every election is difficult," the Premier said yesterday as he summoned Ontario voters to the polls on Oct. 2. He didn't add, but he might well have, that they don't come any more difficult than this.

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The Progressive Conservatives trail the Liberals by 15 points or more. Mr. Eves got a bit of a favourable bump from his handling of last month's blackout but almost everything else the pollsters explore - such things as momentum and desire for change - runs against him. It is, as he admits, a "challenge."

Like every leader in every election, Mr. Eves, 57, is talking about the "clear choice" that is being presented to voters. And Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, 48, is performing the equally stereotyped role of the would-be usurper who promises decisive change.

The two politicians are in agreement, however, about the nature of the battle they are beginning. They use different words to describe it but essentially they both say that Ontario can stay on the same path it's been on since Mike Harris brought his right-wing agenda to office in 1995 or it can try something new. Ontarians have to decide if they want more of the same.

It's something of a relief to finally be able to pin down the Conservative Leader. Since he became Premier more than 16 months ago, it has often proved difficult to link Mr. Eves to the Harris government even though he was a prominent member of it.

At first, he was a kinder version of Mr. Harris, then he swung back to the right. It was never certain which version would show up to campaign.

Mr. Eves has now appropriated the Harris era, however. In announcing the election call, he sketched in the Tories' tax-cut and job-creation record of the past eight years. He even mentioned the workfare program designed to pare the welfare rolls.

It's a risky strategy because he will now have little defence whenever the downside of the Harris years is brought up. For example, how will he escape the deluge of bad publicity that will surely accompany the civil trial that begins later this month into the death of a native protester in Ipperwash park in the early weeks of the Harris government? It's the same story for such things as crowded hospitals, shabby schools - Mr. Eves is now wearing them.

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The Conservative Leader will use the next 29 days to tell voters that they have a choice between staying on "the right track" or supporting the Liberals and getting a government that stands for "high taxes, big unions and special interests." Mr. McGuinty will be tireless in saying, as he did yesterday, that "the choice in this election is clear - real change for Ontario or a rapidly failing status quo."

The Liberal Leader will be attacking the "Harris-Eves" record with his fingernails. He will portray a government that has favoured the well-off while presiding over emaciated social programs. To win, he will have to sustain the appetite for change that the polls are detecting.

Four years ago, in his first campaign as Liberal Leader, Mr. McGuinty ran up against an electorate that had decided it didn't want change and that Mr. Harris deserved another crack at governing. The Liberal Leader proved unequal to the task.

This time, the winds are more favourable for him. He has learned much about campaigning since 1999 (although this has yet to be tested) and he has the added benefit of going up against Mr. Eves rather than Mr. Harris.

The Tories believe their proposals to offer mortgage deductibility and seniors' property-tax credits are winners. Mr. McGuinty believes they are "trinkets and baubles" that the province can't afford.

The winner will be the one who gets to define what "more of the same" means.

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