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Ontario Tories battle to salvage what once seemed a sure victory

PC Leader Tim Hudak speaks during the Ontario election debate in Toronto on Tuesday Sept. 27, 2011.


A dogged Tim Hudak is sticking to his guns as he battles to salvage what once seemed a sure victory, with even senior Progressive Conservatives acknowledging that Dalton McGuinty appears on his way to winning a third straight election.

At the start of the Ontario election, provincial Tories talked as though the only question was whether Mr. Hudak would win a majority or a minority. Now the party leader is spending the campaign's final hours in the battleground Greater Toronto Area, trying to at least hold Mr. McGuinty's Liberals to a minority as a series of polls show them surging.

Sources in all parties agree that many ridings in the "905 belt" around Toronto, where Mr. Hudak is clearly pinning his last-minute hopes, remain too close to call. A strong swing there one way or the other on Thursday could still produce anything from a Liberal majority to a Liberal defeat.

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On Tuesday, Mr. Hudak offered dire warnings that the Liberals will form a coalition with Andrea Horwath's NDP – asserting, improbably, that talks were already underway.

In the second-last day of campaigning, Mr. McGuinty was a sharp contrast, using coolly confident events to project a sense of momentum. He staged cheery photo-ops in Cambridge and Bolton, both of which are in PC-held ridings. Meanwhile, Ms. Horwath was paying yet another visit to the North, where her party has its best chance for major gains.

In the GTA, the New Democrats are thought to have a shot at the ridings of Bramalea-Gore-Malton and Oshawa (held by Liberal and PC incumbents, respectively). Otherwise, the battles in that pivotal region appear to be between Liberals and Tories.

In a couple of PC-held constituencies, Halton and Thornhill, the resurgent Liberals believe they have chances to make gains. But holding on to most of the 15 ridings they currently represent there would be enough for Mr. McGuinty to inch toward the 54 seats the Liberals need for another majority

Sources with Mr. Hudak's campaign say they still have strong hopes of making gains in the GTA regions of Durham and York. But they appear to be struggling in Peel, where the majority of the Liberals' 905 seats are found in the cities of Brampton and Mississauga.

Mr. Hudak's vehement opposition to the Liberal promise of a tax credit for employers who hire skilled immigrants does not seem to have done him favours in Peel's populous South Asian communities. And a senior official with the Tory campaign said the Liberals' mid-campaign announcement that they would cancel the building of a gas-fired power plant seems to have helped them in the riding of Mississauga South, and perhaps in neighbouring seats as well.

At the start of this week, the Tories endured heavy criticism for distributing a misleading flyer about sex education in the province's schools – an apparent attempt to play to the social conservatism that can be found among some immigrant voters, particularly in Brampton.

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In general, Mr. Hudak has made a values-oriented case to suburbanites. Aside from pocketbook relief, his campaign has focused heavily on perceived wedge issues, including law-and-order policies such as forced labour for prison inmates and GPS tracking for sex offenders.

By contrast, the Liberals have largely pinned their hopes on promises to improve suburban infrastructure, such as expanding commuter train service and building new undergraduate campuses in the GTA. The Liberals believe that, coupled with broader pledges that include making it easier for seniors to stay in their homes, those platform planks have helped them re-establish 905 support.

The Liberals are still likely to suffer losses elsewhere in the province. In Southwestern Ontario, the Tories are expected to pick up at least a handful of seats, and the NDP could win a couple. Even members of Mr. McGuinty's campaign team acknowledge that several Northern seats are probably gone from their grasp. And there are tough battles in the east, both in Ottawa and in rural ridings.

But the Liberal fortress of Toronto looks impenetrable again, save for a couple of potential pickups each for the Tories and the NDP. And even in their worst regions, sweeping Liberal losses look less inevitable than they did a few weeks ago.

With turnout likely to be very low, all parties believe the poll results – including Nanos Research figures putting the Liberals up by four points, and Ipsos Reid ones putting them up by 10 – have to be taken with grains of salt. Much depends on the parties' ability to get their supporters out to vote on election day.

But multiple sources close to the PC campaign acknowledged that morale is ebbing as the dismaying numbers roll in. And there are no longer Tories predicting the big win that until recently seemed theirs for the taking.

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