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Hudak tries to get back on message in the GTA

After a week spent giving speeches in parking lots and communities in Southern Ontario, the Progressive Conservatives are bearing down on the Greater Toronto Area in hopes of capitalizing on the surge of conservatism that helped propel Stephen Harper to victory.

If the party is going to have any hope of forming the next government, it will need to win seats in the GTA. It's a tall order – Conservatives have been shut out of the region since 1999, and recent polling suggests they may have slipped into third place in the GTA among decided voters.

But there's reason for optimism: The federal party took an unprecedented 31 seats (out of 46) within the region in the spring election on their way to a majority. But with less name recognition and even fewer star candidates, Tim Hudak faces a tough fight.

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"So much of the federal success revolved around messages of fiscal competence," said Kathy Brock, a political science professor at Queen's University in Kingston. "Tim Hudak faces two difficult challenges in Toronto – raising his profile and convincing voters that he's not going to do anything scary."

As the party's Richmond Hill candidate Vic Gupta knocks on doors each day, Mr. Harper and his regional electoral sweep are never far from his mind. Mr. Gupta is walking a fine line as he tries to convince voters that his party can be every bit as fiscally responsible as his federal counterparts are perceived to be, while at the same time avoiding sounding like a Rob Ford-esque slash-and-cut conservative who will take an axe to essential services.

"The lesson I've taken from the federal success is you need to get the message to as many doors as possible," he said. "I'm knocking on doors six hours a day."

Stinging after two weeks of campaigning that saw the party lose ground in the crucial GTA, Mr. Hudak is pressing his case in the region through the weekend in hopes of replicating the success of the party's federal cousins.

He has a playbook developed by the Harper government that has proven a winner among voters: Work the suburbs, grab as many positive headlines in the minority press as possible, and stick to a steady message of fiscal responsibility in difficult times.

After nearly two weeks on the campaign trail, Prof. Brock said Mr. Hudak and his party are veering dangerously off message. The first week was spent lambasting the Liberals over a plan to create a $10,000 tax credit for employers who hire immigrants. And the party was pulled off track again Thursday over allegations it stacked a photo op in Leamington with parents who weren't actually involved in a local campaign to move a sex offender out of the community.

"None of that is helpful and it certainly doesn't win you votes," Prof. Brock said, referring to Mr. Hudak's steady attack on so-called "foreign workers" as he assailed the immigration credit. "He has to stop using phrases that divide people."

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Mr. Hudak tried to steer the campaign back toward more solid ground Thursday, staging a photo-op in a Richmond Hill Canadian Tire that saw him help four-year-old Fabian Lai lace up a new pair of skates.

"Buying new equipment was a family ritual for me," he said as he promised to lower the taxes that middle-class families pay. "Under an Ontario PC government taxes will go down. Our plan will lower taxes to give families the confidence to spend again – on their priorities – which will help the economy grow and create jobs."

If he's going to have a shot at winning seats in the GTA, Prof. Brock said he'll have to stay on that message relentlessly and avoid getting sidetracked by distracting issues.

"The polls shifted away from him when people began paying attention to his platform," she said. "He'll need to find a way to channel the same message that Mr. Harper and Mr. Ford managed to send – fiscal management and no fear factor."

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