The polls suggest their main opponents are Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives. But in the early weeks of Ontario's election, Kathleen Wynne's Liberals will be more concerned with Andrea Horwath's New Democrats.
Ms. Wynne's campaign team believes a key to victory is setting up a two-way race with the Tories that wins them the large number of voters open to casting ballots for either their party or the NDP. That means they need to marginalize the NDP as a party that neither has a realistic chance of winning, nor speaks for "progressive" voters the way the Liberals do.
Conversely, Liberals concede their nightmare scenario is polls showing the New Democrats pulling even with or passing them in support, which would prevent them from making the familiar argument that a vote for the NDP is a wasted ballot that helps elect the Tories.
Either dynamic, several Liberal sources agreed, could be locked in after the leaders' debate, likely around the midpoint of the campaign. If their party has a healthy lead over the NDP coming out of that event, it will be well-positioned for the campaign's stretch run; if it winds up in third, it will be extremely difficult to recover and Liberal support could easily plummet.
Even more modest shifts in support between the Liberals and NDP could be pivotal in determining who wins power, and not just because those parties are in tight races for seats in downtown Toronto, Ottawa and elsewhere. If the NDP gets more than the 23 per cent popular support it received last election, it could split the vote enough to move suburban Liberal seats to the Tories; if its support goes down, the Liberals should be able to hold those ridings while challenging a few PC incumbents. In last Thursday's budget – which included new social-spending commitments, a tax increase for the province's highest income earners, and a centrepiece commitment to establish a new provincial pension plan – the Liberals believe they have the basis for a campaign platform capable of rallying left-of-centre voters behind them. And in recent days, there has been a subtle shift in the Liberals' language.
For many months prior to the budget's introduction, the Liberals were going out of their way to avoid mentioning Ms. Horwath directly. In television ads and other communications, they took aim at the record of the NDP rather than its leader, a reflection of research showing Ms. Horwath's brand is more popular than that of the party she leads.
But at her news conference last Friday, after her visit to the Lieutenant-Governor to dissolve the legislature, and again over the weekend, Ms. Wynne specifically invoked Ms. Horwath's decision to force an election. The Liberals appear to believe the NDP Leader's blocking of a budget full of policies her party could normally be expected to support gives them a chance to change the way some left-of-centre swing voters see her.
Much of the Liberals' other messaging in the campaign's first days can also instructively be viewed through the lens of their fight with the NDP. For instance, while it might put off a few potential right-of-centre supporters, there is little to be lost on the centre-left by picking a fight with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the way Ms. Wynne has over pensions.
As the campaign begins in earnest, the Liberals will have to choose whether to spend much more time on the attack against the New Democrats, or focus mostly on striking a contrast with the Tories and try to make the New Democrats look irrelevant by ignoring them. But whoever Ms. Wynne is doing battle with publicly, it will really be Ms. Horwath in her sights.