Tim Hudak faces an uphill battle to win the trust of female voters in Ontario thanks to Liberal attack ads that amount to a "character assassination" of the rookie Progressive Conservative Leader.
The Tories are leading in the polls, according to a new survey by Nanos Research, and Mr. Hudak is virtually tied with Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty on who would make the best premier of Ontario. But just one in five women surveyed by Nanos described Mr. Hudak as the most trustworthy leader.
Pollster Nik Nanos said the Liberals are doing an effective job of focusing their attacks on Mr. Hudak's character, rather than on his policy platform, as they prepare for the Oct. 6 election. They are exploiting the fact that Mr. Hudak, who is waging his first campaign as leader, is unknown to many voters. The message is largely designed to appeal to women, who are traditionally more interested in what makes a political leader tick rather than just policy issues, Mr. Nanos said.
"The Liberal attack ads have been a little more of a character assassination or at least an attempt at questioning Tim Hudak's character in terms of how he does politics," he said.
The Tories have concentrated on the governing Liberals' policies, notably the introduction of the harmonized sales tax, which has led to higher prices on many everyday goods and services. They branded Mr. McGuinty "the Tax Man" during a pre-election ad blitz in June, three months before the writ officially drops.
Mr. Hudak can change his perception among women voters with a good performance during the campaign, Mr. Nanos said. This means no mistakes or gaffes that could cause women to lose trust in him.
By contrast, Mr. Nanos said, the Liberals are trying to affect voters' views of Mr. Hudak by making the focus more personal. They have called him a "reckless rookie" who would turn back the clock on progress in Ontario's economy and put jobs in jeopardy. And in their ads, they accused Mr. Hudak of treating voters like "dolts" and "chumps."
A senior Liberal insider said it is not surprising that Mr. McGuinty, who is seeking a third term, would score higher on the question of trust because he has a track record with voters. But no one has ever seen Mr. Hudak in action, he said.
"For me, it goes to the wisdom and the believability of his policies," he said.
In the Nanos poll, 28 per cent of respondents described Mr. McGuinty as the most trustworthy leader. By comparison, 23 per cent chose Mr. Hudak, but the figure dropped to just 20 per cent among female respondents.
New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath came in a distant third with 14 per cent.
The economy could also be a key dividing line in the election, Mr. Nanos said. The number of survey respondents who said they are worse off financially since the provincial election of 2007 was much higher for Tory and NDP supporters than for Liberals.
The findings suggest that the Liberals could lose some support from those voters who did not fare well during the recent economic recession, Mr. Nanos said.
"For some of the people who want change, it has to do with the fact that they're not as well off as they were four years ago," he said.
The poll, conducted last week for The Globe and Mail and CTV/CP 24, shows that the Tories retain a lead of just under five points over the Liberals. The margin between the two parties was 7.3 points in the May Nanos poll.
The poll was conducted between Aug. 10 and Aug. 13, when Nanos Research contacted 1,000 Ontarians by telephone, with 830 of them having decided voting intentions.
The results are accurate within 3.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, when dealing with voting intentions. The margin of error is 3.1 points for questions dealing with trust in leaders.