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The increasingly nasty tone of Progressive Conservative rhetoric in the Ontario election campaign reached a point that made even Tory Leader Ernie Eves uncomfortable yesterday after his staff issued a press release calling Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty "an evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet."

The description was at the end of a press release sent via e-mail to news outlets shortly before noon yesterday by Conservative staffer Erin Gladman, who regularly distributes the party's releases.

It immediately eclipsed Mr. Eves's main message of the day on health care and again highlighted the contrast between the Tory strategy of targeting Mr. McGuinty and the Liberal Leader's strategy of avoiding negative attacks.

The latest salvo from the Conservative war room may have been a bit too hostile, Mr. Eves said, but he refused to apologize for the suggestion that Mr. McGuinty's diet includes furry felines.

"I'm not apologizing, but I am acknowledging that it certainly went over the top," Mr. Eves said.

The insult was meant only as a joke, Mr. Eves added.

"There's a lot of nasty things that go back and forth. There's some pretty nasty things said about me. I don't take them personally. I think you understand that that all goes with the give-and-take of a campaign. . . . I know it was an attempt at humour, but it was an inadvised attempt at humour and hopefully it won't happen again."

At a Liberal campaign stop in Cornwall, Ont., Mr. McGuinty smiled broadly when asked to confirm or deny that he is an evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet.

"I love kittens, and I like puppies too," Mr. McGuinty said. "I have eaten calf, I'll admit to that."

He refused to return the insult: "I'm not going to get sidetracked by that stuff. The people of Ontario want me to focus on the issues that matter to them. This is just a lot of noise."

With the Liberals slightly ahead in the latest polls, the Tories have cranked up assaults against Mr. McGuinty's reputation this week. An aggressive advertising campaign began Wednesday aimed at convincing voters that the Liberal Leader doesn't like tax cuts and won't help children become educated.

Mr. Eves pressed the attack during a loud campaign rally at a Christian school in Ancaster, Ont., on Thursday night, where he repeatedly made strong suggestions that Mr. McGuinty lied when he promised that he won't raise taxes.

The kitten-eater press release was written in the form of an open letter to Mr. McGuinty, arguing the Liberals are not taking the "high road" they claim they are taking.

The final line reads, "Dalton McGuinty. He's an evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet. (sorry)"

It was sent from the Tories' media desk by Ms. Gladman, a highly partisan activist who normally works for Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer.

The media desk is under the direction of Paul Rhodes, a veteran of Tory campaigns, who is credited with coming up with the idea of holding the March 27 budget at the Magna auto-parts plant in Brampton instead of in the legislature.

The release was the latest of several gaffes by the Tory campaign this week. On Monday, Mr. Eves admitted that he didn't know the cost of implementing his campaign promises, though he later said it would amount to $658-million during the first year. Mr. Eves erred again on Wednesday, when he mistook the amount of electricity produced by Ontario Power Generation. On Thursday, Mr. Eves attacked Mr. McGuinty for failing to vote in favour of legislation to protect taxpayers' rights when, in fact, the Liberal Leader supported it while Mr. Eves himself had been absent from the legislature's vote.

This latest misstep shook the confidence of one veteran Tory politician who showed up at Mr. Eves's rally outside a constituency office in Woodstock, Ont.

"It's disappointing," said Bruce Halliday, 77, who served as a Conservative MP from 1974 to 1993. During those years, he said, such antics would have been unthinkable.

"We talked about the things we were in favour of, not trying to run down the opposition," Mr. Halliday said.

"It's worse now than it was in years gone by."

In recent history, the Tories have enjoyed great success by focusing personal attacks on Mr. McGuinty, said Graham White, a politics professor at the University of Toronto. But these slurs are unusually intense, he added.

"It's almost as if the roles are reversed; this is the sort of thing you'd expect to see from an opposition party attacking a government," Mr. White said. "I'm really beginning to wonder whether the Tories haven't gone over the top. Generally speaking, negative messages work. But when you're making outrageous claims, it will probably boomerang."

Even the schoolchildren who shook Mr. Eves's hand at the rally in Woodstock understood that terms like "kitten-eater" are not usual political rhetoric.

"I would think that they're kinda crazy," said Alex Patience, 13.

Allie Longfield, 11, giggled when asked how she'd respond to the insult.

"First I'd ask them, what do you think about yourself: are you a reptilian-eater thing?"

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