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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne smiles as she speaks to the media after winning a majority government at Queen's Park in Toronto on Friday, June 13, 2014.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Federal parties now have a road map for next year's election and it leads along Highway 401 and through Ontarians' anxiety.

No party can win power in Ottawa without winning in the ring of suburbs around Toronto and small towns on either side. And last week's provincial election showed no party can claim a lock on this turf.

Kathleen Wynne's provincial Liberals won there because they made its anxious voters feel a little more secure. The trick for Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau is to figure out how to do that, too.

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Ms. Wynne persuaded enough voters that while Conservatives would just shrink government, she'd use it to ease their economic insecurity and daily lives a little. Mr. Trudeau's federal Liberals will try to borrow that tack, too.

The provincial results suggest there's a stretch of about 50 Southern Ontario seats where the action is: Most can flip between Conservatives and Liberals, but the NDP will be disturbed they weren't in the game more.

Most of Ms. Wynne's surprise majority victory, with 58 seats, came from an east-west red strip on either side of the 401 from Trenton to Brantford. Many are the same seats that clinched Mr. Harper's Conservative majority in 2011.

Do these voters lean left? Right? They're more anxious than ideological. A lacklustre economy has heightened middle-class worries about making ends meet, making it to a decent retirement, and making sure their kids have a future. They feel vulnerable.

Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives offered them tough medicine. Restraint. Austerity. Pain to fix public finances.

But deficit-cutting isn't really the top priority for most voters except when they think it's needed to avoid calamity. They're skeptical of claims it creates jobs. And Mr. Hudak's pledge to cut the public service sounded like turmoil to them.

Ms. Wynne's Liberals tried to reassure. They wouldn't cut teachers while parents fret about their kids' future. Instead of cuts, they'd spend on infrastructure, appealing to traffic-afflicted voters. They promised a pension plan to reassure struggling middle-class families about anemic savings.

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Her strategists targeted what they called the "activist centre" – not protesters, but ordinary folks who believe government can do some good, as opposed to those who argue it's wasteful and the best cure is to get it out of people's way. Her plan even proposed "tax" increases, including a substantial pension levy. Voters appeared willing to pay for a little reassurance.

In a federal election, however, it's Mr. Harper who's usually reassuring. He isn't untested and scary, as Mr. Hudak was portrayed by Liberals, he's experienced and familiar. A little economic uncertainty usually helps his politics: He's widely seen as a safe, restrained hand for the economy, who saves voters a few bucks, too.

In the 2011 election, it was Mr. Harper who won by driving up and down Highway 401 warning voters about turmoil – persuading Liberal voters to turn Tory by warning that the surging NDP would destabilize Canada's economy.

But Ms. Wynne has just won the same voters with a different reassurance model. And Mr. Trudeau's federal Liberals are planning a similar strategy to win the "activist centre."

When Mr. Harper argues the economy is doing fine, they'll portray him as out of touch with real lives. They'll argue his unwillingness to use government to help ordinary folks shows he's unconcerned with their troubles. Mr. Trudeau has pointed to two of Ms. Wynne's planks, retirement and infrastructure, as priorities.

His opponents, meanwhile, will hammer Mr. Trudeau on his weakness in the effort to be reassuring: inexperience. Conservatives are preparing with ads portraying a Liberal Leader "in over his head." The NDP will echo it, too.

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But it's Mr. Mulcair who will be chilled by what he saw last week.

The provincial NDP ran a moderate, pocketbook campaign designed to win the centre from scandal-plagued Liberals. It got, in the words of one NDP strategist, a "wakeup call in the battle between orange and red."

Ontario voters didn't get over their Rae-days fear of the NDP. The provincial party's platform – much like Mr. Mulcair's program – didn't galvanize the left or lure the centre. The NDP's vote went up slightly, and the federal party won't lose hope of winning seats in Toronto's inner suburbs.

But further out, and north of Highway 401, it was out of the game.

That's a critical weakness in a critical place. Because the provincial election showed where the path to federal power is, and that soothing Southern Ontario's anxiety is the way to get there.

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