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NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who was campaigning in London, Ont., on Friday is leading a focus on pragmatism.Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Andrea Horwath's story, as she tells it, sounds tailor-made for an NDP leader: the daughter of an auto worker, she grew up in a working-class family in a Hamilton suburb. Before getting into politics, she was a social activist and community organizer.

Her vision for the social democratic party, however, is anything but traditional. Ms. Horwath wants to push it off the fringes and into the mainstream, ditching idealism for populism in a bid for power.

She is eager to discuss her efforts to make connections in the towers of Bay Street. She speaks constantly of the importance of balanced books. And she is upfront about her desire to make the party less activist and more pragmatic.

"These are some of the steps I've taken to move the NDP into the 21st century," she says. "You can't just throw everything on the table and achieve all these utopian goals."

Her fixation on winning office led Ms. Horwath to reject Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne's left-wing budget – which called for a new pension system and ramped up funding for social programs – and plunge Ontario into a snap election. It is also leading long-time party members, including powerful figures in organized labour, to warn the NDP has sold its soul and they will not help it in the campaign.

With the June 12 vote approaching, New Democrats will soon know whether Ms. Horwath's strategy will lead them closer to government or into political oblivion.

While her game plan may seem new in Ontario, Ms. Horwath is borrowing heavily from some well-worn playbooks. One model she is trying to emulate, a senior party source says, is Tony Blair, who led the British Labour Party to three consecutive majorities by toning down the socialism and getting chummy with business moguls such as Rupert Murdoch. Another inspiration is Roy Romanow, whose decade-long reign in Saskatchewan had the NDP tack to the centre and slay a budget deficit.

The most visible sign of Ms. Horwath's moderation is on policy. She has virtually abandoned the ambitious ideas normally associated with the NDP in favour of small-ball populism: cutting auto insurance premiums, for instance, and offering $100 hydro rebates. She is also determined to prove she can make tough fiscal choices, even if it means driving a hard bargain with organized labour and cutting spending.

"I really do believe that there's a heck of a lot of waste in Ontario at every level," she says. "I tell [the unions] 'I know that is a tough discussion to have, and I know we aren't always going to agree.' "

Party insiders say they are banking her simple message – combined with anger over the Liberals' billion-dollar cancellation of gas-fired power plants – will pull centre-left voters away from Ms. Wynne and into the NDP's arms. On the campaign trail, there is at least anecdotal evidence the plan is working.

"They're making real strides to try to make life more affordable," says Debra Woodhall, 55, who describes herself as a "fairly recent convert" to the party, at a rally in downtown London, Ont., Friday. The non-profit agency worker is also repelled by Grit spending scandals: "They seem to be fine with wasting millions and millions of taxpayer dollars."

For Monika Chestnut, a 30-year-old financial adviser, Ms. Horwath's folksy personality resonates: "She's the kind of candidate that I can see myself sitting down and having a conversation with and actually enjoying myself."

Ms. Horwath has worked hard to cultivate this image, often heading into coffee shops for unscripted mainstreeting.

She's also tried to make inroads in places the NDP historically had little support, including the vote-rich suburbs ringing Toronto. She adopted her auto insurance cutting policy, for instance, after 905 voters raised it repeatedly during the last election.

"She's been very approachable for diverse communities, doing town halls and having roundtables," Ontario NDP president Neethan Shan says after a rally at a community centre in Scarborough-Rouge River, a riding with a high Tamil population. "Our outreach techniques have been enhanced."

And she has courted bastions of business, breaking from what she calls the NDP's previous "bunker mentality."

"They've been much more accessible and seemed much more interested in what we have to say," says Ian Howcroft, vice-president of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, whose members have held roundtables with Ms. Horwath.

For all the new bridges she's building, Ms. Horwath is taking substantial risks. Not only did she reject a left-tilting budget, but she often seems indifferent on traditional social justice issues. She was silent for months on the question of a minimum-wage hike and has taken no position on Ms. Wynne's pension proposal.

"I don't particularly like the drift towards populist politics," says Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan, adding there was "a lot of angst in the party" over Ms. Horwath's sitting on her hands for so long on minimum wage.

The danger for the NDP, he says, is stalwarts will feel uninspired to volunteer during the election: "Unless you mobilize that base, you're going to be in trouble."

On one of the first days of the campaign, Unifor president Jerry Dias went on CBC radio to deliver a similarly stark message: "When politics is more important than direction then I have to start to second guess."

It's not only labour that feels this way. Grassroots NDPers from across the party express the same opinion, and many are sitting out the campaign.

One organizer argues there is no point in winning an election if the party doesn't have a mandate to do anything substantial. Another expresses irritation at Ms. Horwath's lack of policy ambition, but says it's hard to criticize her because of her electoral success, which has seen the caucus more than double.

David McGrane, an expert on social democratic movements at the University of Saskatchewan, says successful left-wing politicians often have to navigate such tensions. Mr. Blair overcame them by sharing market research with the rank and file to show them his moderation was necessary to win. Mr. Romanow, meanwhile, relied on iron will, telling caucus members to rally behind him or face defeat.

"Andrea Horwath is already playing this balancing game," Dr. McGrane says. "How these tensions play out has to do with leadership."

Ms. Horwath's circle is confident she can walk this line and make major gains. They are willing to risk the blowback from defeating a left-wing budget because they are certain they are poised for a breakthrough. And the woman who hopes to lead the party out of the political wilderness sees no other option if it is to compete.

Her mission, she says, is simple: "I'm maturing the NDP."

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