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queen’s park

When Andrea Horwath strode into a news conference this week to issue one of her demands in return for propping up Kathleen Wynne's Liberals, she was sporting twin reminders of how she first introduced herself to Ontarians: the bright orange high heels that were a staple of her party's advertising back in 2011.

Less than two years later, they felt like a blast from the past.

During her first campaign at her party's helm and for a time thereafter, the NDP Leader was all about being approachable – her relative unscriptedness and occasional irreverence setting her apart from the two men in suits she was competing against. But lately it has been a very different version of Ms. Horwath on display, to the extent that it has become difficult to determine just what sort of a leader she is, or how she wants her province to see her.

Where once she was sunny, now she is stern. Having ostensibly eschewed political gamesmanship, she can scarcely go a day of late without issuing new ultimatums through the media – responding to the government's inclusion of most of her requests in her budget by making new ones. Constantly repeating the same lines word for word, she is giving well-programmed Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak a run for his money on talking-points adherence.

The most significant manifestation of this change has been Ms. Horwath's refusal, for the better part of two months, to sit down with Ms. Wynne to discuss her concerns about the provincial budget. True, they did have three previous meetings. But it came as a considerable surprise when a leader who used to complain that former premier Dalton McGuinty was inaccessible turned around and mocked his successor's enthusiasm for "conversations."

Ms. Horwath's officials, naturally, deny any major shift. Since the province began its experiment with minority government after that 2011 campaign, they say, she has been focused on getting "results" for Ontarians; she's just approaching that task a bit differently now. And they point out, correctly, that even in the last election a part of her persona involved playing off her Hamilton roots to present herself as a "Steeltown scrapper" who could be tough when she needed to be.

But it is fairly clear, watching her, that she is struggling to adapt to circumstances that have changed considerably in a matter of months.

The first of those is that unlike during the last budget, when nobody seriously thought there should be an election so soon after the previous one, many members of her own caucus (not to mention the general public) want to see her bring down the government over its assorted spending scandals and controversies. If she doesn't think the time is right, she has to somehow avoid seeming too soft, which partially explains the harsher tone.

An even bigger challenge is the one posed by the Liberals' change in leadership. Those contrast points with Mr. McGuinty – for which, it must be said, Ms. Horwath relied somewhat shamelessly on gender – simply don't work with Ms. Wynne. Being pleasant, down-to-earth and consensus-oriented would not really offer the prospect of change, because the Premier is as good or better at being those things.

Other than the blue-collar appeal that was always part of the mix, Ms. Horwath's branding required tweaking if not an outright overhaul. And if you're wondering why exactly she might not want an election just yet, that challenge – along with her party's lack of a clear agenda, its organizational needs and pressures from organized labour not to chance Mr. Hudak getting elected – is not a bad reason.

For now, it's likely that few Ontarians have noticed that she's struggling to find the right balance as she shifts her persona; such is the nature of a province that tends to tune out between elections. But if Ms. Horwath's efforts to prove her toughness wind up forcing an election this spring, either by design or by accident, voters may be surprised and confused by how different she is than the first time they paid attention to her.