After more than two years as Progressive Conservative Leader, Tim Hudak is finally getting his chance to introduce himself to the many Ontarians who ignore provincial politics between elections.
But in the early stages of this fall's campaign, he has failed – perhaps even refused - to put his best face forward.
Since he took his party's helm, Mr. Hudak has struggled to translate his easygoing off-camera personality into something likeable when the cameras are on. As though a switch has been flipped, he suddenly becomes glib and snarly, like a caricature of an opposition politician.
Until recently, he seemed to be making progress – leaving the nastiest attacks on Dalton McGuinty's government to members of his caucus while he tried to strike a more positive tone. He set aside his propensity for props, used fewer sound bites and generally started to look more like someone ready to run the country's second biggest government.
But late this summer, he regressed. First with a carnival-style "Wheel of Tax," the props returned. And once the campaign started, they were joined by a striking degree of negativity.
The decision to go aggressively after a marginal Liberal promise to offer employers a tax credit for giving work experience to skilled immigrants (something similar to a previous promise by Mr. Hudak himself) may not have been out of step with majority opinion. But spending the campaign's first few days railing against "foreign workers" while flooding the airwaves with radio ads that warned of the coming immigrant hordes, did not make for a warm-and-fuzzy first impression.
Even when he wasn't talking about the tax credit, Mr. Hudak still came off a little hot. He has a tendency to speak too loudly during his rally-style speeches, which can overwhelm smaller rooms. And the staging of his events has led to too many images of him standing alone, which campaign teams try to avoid.
It's a sharp contrast to Mr. McGuinty, who has tried to strike a soothing and reassuring presence – both through his advertisements, which feature the Liberal Leader speaking positively about his record, and at public events. Even at rallies, he remains resolutely calm rather than feeding heavily off the energy of his supporters.
It's not as though the Liberals have been all sunshine and roses. They gave as good as they got during the tax-credit debate, stopping just short of calling Mr. Hudak a racist. But they've followed the time-tested approach of keeping their leader mostly above the fray, while others – former finance minister Greg Sorbara is the lead attack dog – go on the offensive.
However two-faced the Liberal strategy, it seems – based on opinion polls, and the general tone of coverage – to be working better than what Mr. Hudak is doing.
Senior Tories mostly defend Mr. Hudak's performance, arguing it has helped advance an "on your side" narrative that will work to their advantage. But they acknowledge it will be necessary to soften his image in the weeks ahead. The props have been set aside again, he talks more about his own policies, will be placed in more flattering photo opportunities, and is being counselled to avoid seeming too angry.
What the Tories have been counting on, to some extent, is that voters don't all tune in at once. Not until the Sept. 27 leaders' debate, a scant nine days before election day, will the spotlight be fully turned on.
The good news, from their perspective, is that Mr. Hudak may get a second chance to make a first impression. What remains to be seen is whether, in the pressure of a campaign, he can start looking less like an opposition leader and more like a premier.