It is a strategy that has raised a few eyebrows.
Kathleen Wynne is competing for power against a Progressive Conservative Leader, Tim Hudak, who has struggled to get even his own party's members to warm to him. But since Ontario's election campaign unofficially began last Friday, the Liberal Leader has spent as much time attacking Prime Minister Stephen Harper, mostly for his refusal to expand the Canada Pension Plan and his lack of enthusiasm for her proposal to create a provincial pension plan to supplement it.
Considering that Mr. Harper probably has more admirers in Ontario than Mr. Hudak does, this on first glance seems a dubious strategy. An uncharitable explanation would be that Ms. Wynne – whose campaign team includes former senior officials for federal Liberal leaders Paul Martin, Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion – is fighting old battles.
But there is more method to the madness than that. However unseemly it may be, Ms. Wynne's Liberals believe that using Mr. Harper as a foil fits into several of their broader strategic objectives.
One of those goals is spending as much time as possible talking about their pension proposal. Rightly or wrongly, the Liberals believe that issue is a big winner among their target voters; maintaining focus on it also has the upside of keeping attention away from more unpleasant matters, such as the gas-plants scandal and the province's grim economic and fiscal figures.
Merely going out day after day and talking about why Ontario should have its own pension plan, though, would get old fast. Turning it into an ongoing fight with the Prime Minister – and giving interviews in which Ms. Wynne just happens to drop in details about Mr. Harper "smirking" about pensions during private meetings – helps keep it on front pages and in newscasts.
A second aim relates to who those target voters are. Public-opinion research shows lots of room for movement between the Liberals and the New Democrats and little of it between the Liberals and the Tories. So much of Ms. Wynne's game plan revolves around convincing left-of-centre Ontarians that she's their champion, while marginalizing NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
In that crowd, there are few fans of Mr. Harper and plenty of people who have a visceral dislike of him. Ms. Wynne is playing to such sentiments, while trying to demonstrate her own values by contrasting them against Mr. Harper's.
A third objective is proving Ms. Wynne's forcefulness. In the early months of her leadership, some Liberals were concerned about seeming weak or indecisive – a potential vulnerability in uncertain economic times, when there's a premium on strong leadership.
Ontarians are less inclined than most Canadians to get excited about a fight with Ottawa, but the Liberals seem to think that by making a show of standing up for the province Ms. Wynne can prove herself the sort of fighter voters want on their side.
There may only be so long the scrapping can go, before the obvious enthusiasm of both sides for it – federal Conservatives have clearly relished returning fire – makes it look like a dog-and-pony show. And however long it goes, all those potential upsides won't do much good if Ms. Wynne winds up suffering for the perception she's trying to distract from more important matters.
But this fight wasn't picked on some whim. It's a multi-purpose way of helping introduce Ms. Wynne to the many Ontarians who don't know her well, and for now the Liberals evidently think it's working for them.