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Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath arrives at a campaign and media event at Dewson St. Public School in Toronto on May 30.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS

This was supposed to be the NDP's moment.

With the Liberals reeling from a parade of spending scandals and the Progressive Conservatives running on an unabashedly government-cutting platform, the time was ripe for Andrea Horwath to establish her party as the province's big tent, centre-left force and consign the Grits to the wilderness.

That, at least, was the thinking among Ms. Horwath's circle when they forced the election by rejecting Kathleen Wynne's budget.

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Instead, hers has felt very much like the campaign of a third party. While the Liberals and Tories slug it out with sharply different visions for the province's future, she has struggled to get any attention. With two-thirds of the campaign done, the NDP remains mired in the low-20s in most polls.

So what went wrong?

In part, it has to do with a massive political calculation on which Ms. Horwath based her campaign. Top New Democrat insiders said before the election that the party expected Liberal support to collapse early, with much of it moving to the NDP, setting up a two-way battle with the Tories in many parts of the province.

Most crucially, some NDPers seemed to believe this could happen without the party even having to attack the Liberals particularly hard.

On its face, it wasn't a bad strategy. After all, the Liberals have spent the better part of two years pilloried by non-stop revelations about their billion-dollar decision to cancel two gas-fired power plants. And the scenario the NDP outlined played out in by-elections in London West and Niagara Falls over the last year.

The trouble was that this strategy always depended in part on the opening weeks of the campaign being a referendum on the Liberals. The PCs, however, took the exact opposite tack, and spent the first two weeks focusing attention on themselves with a series of substantial, and sometimes controversial, policy announcements. The Tories wanted to set the pace of the campaign early and present Leader Tim Hudak as premier material, so there was no desire to spend any more time attacking than necessary.

As it became increasingly clear that voters weren't abandoning the Liberals on their own – and the Tories weren't going to do the NDP's dirty work for them – Ms. Horwath went on the offensive. She has started calling the Liberals' actions "corrupt," a term she never previously used. And she spent a northern leaders' debate relentlessly attacking Ms. Wynne's government on ethics.

The second problem the NDP has faced is the also-ran feel of their platform. While the Liberals and Tories staked out clear positions on the left and right early on, the New Democrats waited until halfway through to release most of their policy. When they did, it effectively amounted to a long list of populist promises tacked onto the Liberals' budget, but jettisoned Ms. Wynne's central pledge of a new provincial pension plan. And while the other two parties released extensive economic research to explain their assumptions, the NDP appeared to have no idea where some of their proposed budget savings would actually come from.

The third difficulty is the anger in the NDP base. Dissatisfaction among rank-and-file party activists with Ms. Horwath's populist approach has been quietly simmering below the surface for more than a year. And it suddenly erupted during the campaign. Labour leaders and party organizers publicly condemned the NDP's decision to reject the Liberals' leftwing budget, and took umbrage with her excluding a provincial pension plan from her platform.

It would be easy to dismiss these outbursts as the grumblings of old-guard malcontents were it not for the fact that many young, active NDPers – some of them in positions of prominence in the party – have privately expressed the same views. On top of attracting the wrong kind of attention for Ms. Horwath, there is the very real risk that the party will lack volunteers to pull their vote.

Last, of course, is the Wynne factor. The Liberals have moved left under their current leader and co-opted much traditionally NDP policy – including, ironically, that pension plan that Ms. Horwath has jettisoned. In such a situation, it's difficult for the New Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Grits, especially in a campaign that has largely been a battle of ideas.

As always, of course, there are caveats.

The campaign still has more than a week to go, with a crucial televised debate on Tuesday. It is entirely possible the electorate still hasn't quite woken up to the campaign. If they do in its dying days, the NDP's numbers could still shift.

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Meanwhile, with the latest revelation of Liberal spending – hundreds of millions to bail out research non-profit MaRS from a bad real estate deal – the Progressive Conservatives are doing what the NDP seems to have hoped they would do in the early going. Former Tory MPP Frank Klees exposed the deal, and the Tories have hammered Ms. Wynne on it for the last two days.

Right now, Ms. Horwath must be thinking of that famous saying, widely attributed to another social democrat – a week is a long time in politics – and hoping that its true.

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