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Andrea Horwath’s Ontario New Democrats could be primed for bigger gains in the provincial election likely to happen this spring.KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/The Globe and Mail

When Andrea Horwath outlined a proposal for hiking Ontario's minimum wage earlier this week, it came as a surprise.

Not the policy itself, which pitched raising the wage higher than the governing Liberals are currently planning, and adding some tax cuts to lessen the effect on small business. The surprise was that Ms. Horwath was taking a position at all.

In recent months, the Ontario NDP has released next to nothing on the policy front. Even as Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has tried to cultivate an image as premier-in-waiting with hundreds of ideas on everything from the economy to social services, Ms. Horwath has been conspicuously silent.

Her reticence is at least partly a question of timing – when to bring out policies for maximum effect. It's also an attempt to leave herself as much manoeuvring room as possible. And it signals a sea change from what the NDP once was – the party with bold plans for social reform – to what it will be in the next election: the friendly, inoffensive team with a likeable leader making a play for mainstream, middle-class voters and mounting a serious attempt at winning.

Interestingly, NDP insiders confide the party has been developing policies behind closed doors all this time. Most of these, however, simply haven't seen the light of day.

One source says the party held a series of buttoned-down policy meetings in recent weeks. MPPs and staff spent weekends hunkered down over Greek food and pizza at Queen's Park kicking around ideas. On one occasion earlier this month, they held a retreat in Niagara Region.

Ms. Horwath signalled the fruits of this labour will be announced over the next few months.

"We're going to continue over the next little while to roll out more of our priorities," she said in an interview Thursday.

On Friday, for instance, she is expected to debut a new line – "the middle-class squeeze" – which will frame all her policies from now on.

How substantial these policies will be remains to be seen. But they will be going squarely after middle-of-the-road voters who once favoured the Liberal Party. The NDP's hope is that Grit support will collapse and it can fight head-to-head with the Tories.

Some insiders insist the party is remaining faithful to its progressive roots, and it's certainly true that helping such a large, amorphous group as the middle class can be framed in leftist terms.

But there's no denying Ms. Horwath has taken the accent off the NDP's traditional focus on anti-poverty, social justice and environmental causes in an effort to broaden its appeal.

And she has clearly calculated that most voters care a great deal less about bold policy than they do about chequebook populism and winning personalities.

"Where's the thunder from the left?... All of that's been washed away," political scientist Peter Woolstencroft says. "We have parties that are using this very anodyne description 'middle class' – everyone can see themselves in it."

Most of the electorate, he says, is more interested in voting for people they like and trust than someone promising big ideas.

"It's a message game," he says. "There's nothing grand about it, and that's where the votes are."

It can't have been lost on Ms. Horwath that bold policy plays have caused problems for other leaders. Mr. Hudak, for instance, had to back away from a pledge to abolish mandatory union dues after members of his own party complained the policy was too extreme. B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix, meanwhile, was trounced by Christy Clark last year despite having a smorgasbord of policies.

On the positions she does adopt, Ms. Horwath has been careful about timing.

With minimum wage, for instance, she waited until the Liberals had already put all their cards on the table before playing her hand. It allowed her to one-up the government ("I'll see you an $11 minimum wage, and raise you to $12!") and to drive the story for a day.

Likewise, Ms. Horwath is sure to get maximum attention in the next month or two, in the run-up to the spring budget and a possible election. Her policies will receive far more play now than they would have six months ago.

The NDP's strategy is not without detractors. Some rank-and-file New Democrats grumble Ms. Horwath is not ambitious enough, and her penny-ante policies leave them uninspired. This is the party of Tommy Douglas, after all – they didn't sign up to fight elections over marginal taxes and auto insurance cuts.

But for now, her critics can say very little publicly. In her five years at the NDP's helm, she has more than doubled the size of her caucus. Whatever she is doing, her loyalists say, it is working.

And in politics, everyone likes a winner.

Adrian Morrow covers the Ontario legislature in Toronto.