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The Globe and Mail

Ontario can look forward to a real election race in the fall

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is seen during a speech in Oakville, Ont., on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011.

Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press/Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

Ask most Ontarians if they're looking forward to another election campaign a few months from now, and you'd be unlikely to get too many friendly responses. The current federal race, which came shortly after last fall's municipal elections and caught much of the public by surprise, probably seems like more than enough.

But for voters in much of Ontario, there's at least one reason to anticipate the Oct. 6 provincial election more eagerly than the May 2 federal one: their votes will really matter.

Much has been made of Ontario being the key battleground in this spring's campaign, and relative to other provinces it is. But there are still no more than 20 ridings, out of 106 within the province's boundaries, that are really up for grabs. Those are mostly in the Greater Toronto Area, with a few scattered in mid-sized cities such as Guelph and Kitchener. Almost all of the parties' efforts, particularly those of the Conservatives, are focused there; the rest are locked down by incumbents.

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In the provincial race, there are far fewer certainties. The opposition parties, which between them hold a scant 35 of 107 seats, shouldn't have to worry about too many of theirs. But other than ridings held by especially high-profile MPPs, such as Dwight Duncan and Sandra Pupatello in Windsor, incumbency won't guarantee much for the governing Liberals outside Toronto - and even that fortress could start to crumble in a few spots.

While the suburban ridings getting bombarded with campaign resources during the federal race will again get lots of action, so too will most other regions. Rural southwestern and eastern Ontario, barely getting a mention this spring, will largely decide the fate of Dalton McGuinty's government. There, it will be a dogfight between Liberals and Progressive Conservatives; in northern Ontario, the NDP will be looking to make gains.

All told, there are only a couple of ridings that are in play this spring and won't be in the fall. But there are at least 25 that aren't now, and will be then.

The wonders of modern campaign tactics, of course, mean that it will still be a small minority of Ontarians that the provincial parties are catering to. Voter identification methods have advanced to the point where strategists can target their message toward relatively small blocs needed to hand them wins. But getting a high turnout among their supporters matters, too, and that should make for frantic ground campaigns in at least half the province.

It may not best the federal campaign in other ways. The messaging may be just as negative, the policy debate just as stifled, the media just as focused on the horse race. But at least the provincial race will have the dynamic of a real general election, rather than being dominated by a few local battles. That's something to look forward to.

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