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Sometimes it only takes three words to change the course of events in this country.

"Goodbye Charlie Brown" put an end to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's plan to de-index the old-age pension.

And "You're not" has, in all likelihood, just put a quick end to any Progressive Conservative dream of forming the next Ontario government.

Some are already even suggesting that it is the beginning of "Goodbye John Tory."

With eight days still to go in the provincial election, they can already start studying this one. The knockout did not come in the formal debate, but was delivered by a woman with large earrings and a voice so filled with firm scolding that John Tory must have felt he was once again in short pants and tall trouble.

He was - and he still is, though some of the trouble is new.

Yesterday in Toronto, the Conservative Leader dramatically backed down from his stubborn insistence that a John Tory government would publicly fund faith-based private schools. Only last week, in a meeting with The Globe and Mail's editorial board, he was digging his heels in so deep on the issue he left gouges in the boardroom floor. And yet, some time over a weekend filled with bad polls and panicking candidates, he changed his mind. By yesterday morning his stand was that, if elected, he would one day offer a free vote in the legislature on the issue.

Tory's epiphany, if you will, came during an encounter with voter Beverly Cassel during a Sarnia campaign stop. That quick exchange with Cassel, Tory said, "convinced me that something I had genuinely, honestly put forward in a spirit of inclusion and fairness had, in fact, become too much a source of division."

The encounter, caught on camera, took only 19 seconds. The woman takes Tory to task over his failure to explain adequately exactly why he wants to fund such schools.

"I'm doing my best on that..." he tries to answer.

" You're not," she says in a dismissive manner.

But it is not only in the backing down on the controversial schools issue that Tory has damaged himself - he has, at the same time, managed to hamstring himself on the one issue that was working in his favour as he took on Premier Dalton McGuinty: breaking promises.

Those three damning words the woman in Sarnia spoke were reminiscent of an incident 22 years ago when Solange Denis ripped into the prime minister of the day for breaking his promise that he wouldn't touch pensions. "You lied to us," she told Mulroney outside the Parliament buildings. "I was made to vote for you and then it's Goodbye Charlie Brown."

The federal government quickly backed down. Fortunately for Mulroney, he still had three years to go before facing voters. John Tory has only these eight days.

It is hard to see how it took this long for him to catch on. Anyone travelling about the province this spectacular fall learned instantly that there was only one hot-button issue out there. Traditional Tory supporters, particularly older ones in rural settings, were so outraged by the funding proposal - however logical and fair Tory tried to make it sound - that they said they would switch parties, some for the first time in their lives.

Long-time friends of Tory wondered aloud, if privately, where this had come from. Tory's sincerity, his many business successes and his freshness at a time when voters as well as leaves were considering change should have given him a clear run at the top. All he really had to promise was to, unlike McGuinty, not break any.

Tory, if anyone, should have known better. He had worked for former Ontario Premier Bill Davis when Davis extended separate-school funding to the end of high school. It was a controversial, still-divisive scheme that ultimately cost Davis's successor, Frank Miller, his political career and put an end to a 42-year Conservative dynasty in Ontario.

And he was campaign chair during the 1993 federal election, when Prime Minister Kim Campbell happened to say "an election is no time to discuss serious issues" and the Tories ended up with only two seats.

Perhaps, in this case, he should have listened.

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com