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Striking contrast with Ontario NDP is Wynne’s big challenge

Ontario Liberals needed a morale boost, and Kathleen Wynne provided it.

Untested at leading her party into a general election, the rookie Premier served notice this weekend that she's up to the challenge. Delivering a rally speech at the Liberals' convention in Toronto, she managed to sound passionate enough making her case for her (still fuzzy) vision of the province, energizing the crowd in a way many other veteran leaders struggle to do.

Liberals were left in a sufficiently cheery mood to overlook one section of her text that fell flat. While Ms. Wynne landed solid shots against Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, she failed to do likewise with Andrea Horwath – stumbling over uninspiring and contradictory lines about the NDP being both anti-business and lacking a clear agenda.

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The problem for the Liberals is that striking an appealing contrast to the New Democrats, which Ms. Wynne has regularly been struggling with, will be their biggest imperative if there is a provincial campaign this spring.

A recent Nanos poll helped show why that is. While the horse-race numbers (showing the Liberals with 36 per cent support, the Tories at 33 per cent and the NDP at 25 per cent) got attention, nearly half of Liberals indicated they would consider supporting the NDP, and vice versa – much greater than the potential for movement between either of those parties and the PCs.

Ms. Wynne's personal appeal to left-of-centre voters, not to mention the likelihood that this spring's budget will continue the shift from austerity to what Liberals are calling "investment," might seem to make that electoral volatility more an opportunity for the premier than a danger. But that overlooks Ms. Horwath's own popularity, and the extent to which it has clearly gotten inside the Liberals' heads.

In this weekend's speech, Ms. Wynne uttered the name Hudak five times, and Horwath not once. The omission was effectively a concession that she considers Ms. Horwath's persona – which revolves around a perceived common touch, pragmatism and blue-collar scrappiness – too well-established to tear down.

More fruitful, the Liberals believe, is to play off inherent mistrust of the party Ms. Horwath leads. Despite Ontario's only NDP government having been led by now-Liberal Bob Rae, New Democrats concede the unpleasantness of that era left them with a lingering brand problem. But even that is something Ms. Wynne and her strategists are struggling to capitalize on, because they can't settle on what they're warning Ontarians about.

The Liberals' dilemma on that front, which led Ms. Wynne to confuse her audience on Saturday by simultaneously declaring that the NDP "believes business is the enemy" and has no position on any relevant issue, is they're battling with the New Democrats for more than one type of voter.

Ms. Wynne is simultaneously trying to take away a few downtown ridings from the New Democrats, to avoid losing seats to them in places such as Windsor and Thunder Bay, and to prevent the NDP hiving off enough Liberal votes to allow the Tories to claim suburbia.

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To win over urban leftists, the Liberals see advantage in highlighting the NDP's recent lack of interest in environmentalism, anti-poverty activism and other traditional causes; elsewhere the NDP is vulnerable to the perception it wants to do too much, so it's unhelpful for the Liberals to label its ambitions modest.

It's conceivable that modern campaign methods such as narrowly targeted literature drops will allow the Liberals to effectively deliver one line of attack in one part of the province, and another in another. But Ms. Wynne will be by far the best asset of an otherwise tired government trying to justify another term in office. To make good on the promise she offered to fellow Liberals this weekend, she could usefully settle on a coherent angle for her most pivotal pitch.

Follow me on Twitter: @aradwanski

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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