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Fighting for her political life, Andrea Horwath served New Democrats a big helping of their version of red meat – tofu, if you like.

There was a re-embrace of "social democracy," new-found enthusiasm for environmentalism, much bashing of privatization and something about Liberals and Conservatives having a "drunken orgy" with big business. Coupled with contrition for abandoning party values and alienating the grassroots in her disappointing election campaign last spring – and, importantly, with no would-be successors – it proved enough for her to escape with 77-per-cent support for her continued leadership in Saturday afternoon's vote.

But rarely has a verdict been more at odds with the mood in the room that rendered it. A good number of New Democrats sat on their hands when Ms. Horwath was introduced to speak in the morning and after her applause lines; most others were polite, nothing more. When supporters in front of the stage tried to start an "Andrea" chant, it died a quick death.

It was enough to leave observers and New Democrats themselves confused. Because it is now decidedly unclear what their party is, and what it aspires to be.

For five years, Ms. Horwath asked for a big leap of faith from her members. She would run less from the left, and offer a sort of pocketbook populism that would appeal to people who had never voted NDP. In so doing, the NDP would go from a party of protest to one that competed for power.

For a while, it seemed to be paying off. The NDP went from 10 seats when Ms. Horwath took over to 17 after the 2011 election, and picked up four more in subsequent by-elections. Then she overplayed her hand.

In this year's campaign, she wrongly assumed she could keep her base while running on a platform that revolved almost entirely around pocketbook policies such as lower auto insurance rates. The NDP saw its modest pick-up of three seats outside Toronto nullified by three losses in the city – moving its tent, rather than expanding it.

What complicates matters is that the people Ms. Horwath alienated – unions, social activists and other members of the traditional left – still hold party memberships, more so than the newcomers.

So to keep her job, she had to start talking like a more traditional NDP leader, even though most of her caucus is made up of people who won on her less ideological pitch.

With the better part of four years to go before the next election, Ms. Horwath could find a way to strike the right balance, with policies and messages that appeal to all concerned. Something like the federal NDP's public daycare pledge, which many provincial New Democrats concede they wish they had run on, could play well with those who want a bigger role for government and those who feel overburdened by day-to-day costs. As she tries to find such solutions, it should help that she has Michael Balagus – a highly respected backroom talent from Manitoba, who knows from winning NDP campaigns – as her chief of staff.

Beyond policy, though, the big aim of Ms. Horwath's leadership has been to convert her party into one with the will and the capacity to win. And with no pay-off in the last campaign – and having seen the federal NDP struggle to build on gains made in the last national election, and Olivia Chow's bid for Toronto's mayoralty tank – there are signs that Ontario New Democrats are retreating into their old party-of-conscience mode.

Of all the parts of Ms. Horwath's speech that fell flat on Saturday, the flattest was her case for how the NDP could win the next election. Her calls to reach out to more potential supporters, raise more money and be ready on the ground drew barely even polite applause – just virtual silence.

Ms. Horwath probably was not dwelling on that after the votes were counted. But it remains to be seen if she and her party remain a good fit for each other.

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