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NDP's Horwath gaining popularity in Ontario

Provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in 2009.

Colin O'Connor/The Canadian Press/Colin O'Connor/The Canadian Press

A mini-orange wave is rolling across Ontario, lifting the fortunes of the New Democrats in the lead up to the provincial election.

A new poll by Nanos Research, which will be released on Tuesday, shows that support for New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath is growing, indicating that Premier Dalton McGuinty has to protect his left flank as well.

"He's getting squeezed on both sides," president Nik Nanos said in an interview.

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The Progressive Conservatives retain a clear lead over the governing Liberals. What is much more noteworthy, however, is the fact that the New Democrats are the only provincial party whose popularity has increased in recent months.

The telephone poll of 503 Ontarians, which was conducted over two days in mid-May, found that only 25 per cent of voters believe Mr. McGuinty would make the best premier, positioning him six percentage points behind Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.

But 16 per cent of voters said they believe Ms. Horwath would make the best premier, an increase of six percentage points over the past two months. Her party over all is gaining in popularity, with 19 per cent saying they would vote NDP if an election were held today. The Liberals are trailing seven percentage points behind the Tories, with 34 per cent of the votes.

This trend does not bode well for Mr. McGuinty. A key to his back-to-back election victories since 2003 is that the NDP has been almost a nonentity, allowing the Liberals to pick up left-of-centre votes.

But the most recent municipal and federal elections show that the political mood is hardening. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford swept to victory last fall by pledging to have voters pay less in return for receiving better municipal services.

In the federal campaign, the NDP won 26 per cent of the votes cast in Ontario on May 2, drawing away enough Liberal votes to help the Conservatives win a majority. The Liberals were left with just 11 of Ontario's 106 seats.

If that trend spills over to the provincial campaign, Mr. Nanos said, the Liberals won't be able to count on a strong showing in Toronto to win a third majority on Oct. 6.

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"Fortress Toronto for the Liberals is not an automatic in terms of holding on to that," he said. "That changes the dynamic of the campaign strategy."

The two rookie opposition leaders in Ontario remain political unknowns. But both are running populist campaigns that could resonate with voters. While Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath have not released their campaign platforms, both have pledged to remove the provincial portion of the harmonized sales tax from home heating bills.

The Nanos poll indicates that voters are becoming increasingly concerned about pocketbook issues, such as rising gas prices, Mr. Nanos said. Just under 9 per cent of those polled said gas prices were their top concern, up from 5 per cent two months ago. The vast majority cited health care and the economy and jobs as the top issues.

"Things that practically affect the day-to-day lives of Ontarians are more likely to be top-of-mind concerns," Mr. Nanos said.

The Nanos poll is considered accurate plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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