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Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak speaks during an interview with The Globe's editorial board on Oct. 25, 2013. Mr. Hudak is pledging to put subway construction at the top of the government’s priority list.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is pledging to put subway construction at the top of the government's priority list – and move other infrastructure projects down – in a bid to break gridlock in the Toronto region.

It is his most concrete explanation yet of how, if he becomes premier in an election widely expected next year, he would fund the tens of billions of dollars' worth of transit the region needs without hiking taxes. It is also a frank admission of the tradeoffs involved.

And it stands in stark contrast to Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne's plan, which looks to new taxes, fees and tolls to fund transit construction without compromising schools, hospitals and other priorities.

"We're all about clear, bold choices and we're not shying away from that," Mr. Hudak said in a year-end interview at his Queen's Park office. "No, the choices aren't easy. But we need to be bold. I didn't get into politics to hedge my bets, to take the safe route."

His blunt tone is an indication of another major distinction between himself and Ms. Wynne that will define the next campaign. While the Premier leans heavily on her upbeat personality to sell her policies, Mr. Hudak has given up on winning what he dubs the "popularity contest" among leaders. Instead, he will brand himself as a serious man with the economic savvy to steer the province through uncertain times.

If it sounds like he's borrowing a page from Stephen Harper's playbook – Mr. Hudak even has an economics degree, like the Prime Minister, and often talks about it – he is quick to credit his high-school principal father instead.

"The lesson my Dad always imparted to me was: You'll face a choice in life some time to be popular or to be respected. And popularity's fleeting, because you try to make everybody happy, and you don't make the tough decisions. It fades because you accomplish nothing," he said. "Instead, set out to be respected, which my Dad did. As a result, he was very liked at the end of the day because he showed what he had built."

This strategy, of course, is also about pragmatism as much as principle: In polls, Mr. Hudak's personal popularity consistently lags that of his party.

Instead, he is betting that voters in the seat-rich battleground around the country's largest city will like his plan, which would defer other infrastructure needs in favour of transit, better than the Premier's. Combine that with the other things Mr. Hudak is proposing – slashing the size of government and breaking the power of trade unions, for instance – and it adds up to a roll of the dice in what will likely be a do-or-die contest for him.

After dropping the 2011 election to Dalton McGuinty and battling critics in his own party ever since, Mr. Hudak would be unlikely to stay on if he loses again. A year from now, he will almost certainly either be running the province, or out of a job.

Despite this high-stakes gamble – and the buttoned-up image he is crafting for himself – Mr. Hudak is warm and relaxed in person as he looks ahead to next year. When he discusses his economic plans, for instance, he drops in anecdotes about his Slovak immigrant grandparents and his five-year-old daughter, Miller.

He even reveals that he and his wife, Deb Hutton, are expecting a second child. They have long wanted one, he said, and will get their wish this spring – around the time of the election he hopes will carry him to office.

Asked about the timing, he laughs.

"When you're younger, you control your fate when it comes to these things," he said. "When you're older, fate kind of controls you."