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If current public opinion polls hold true on Ontario’s forthcoming provincial election, neither politicians nor public will be sure on election night who will govern them in the months or years to follow.

The consensus builder

Andrea Horwath does not pretend to have all the answers. "If you just assume that you're all-knowing, and don't pay attention to what people are worried about," she said this week aboard her campaign bus, "then I don't think that's leadership."

It was a shot at Dalton McGuinty, particularly his implementation of the harmonized sales tax. But it was also an effective summation of the NDP Leader's pitch to voters: that, unlike her opponents, she is in touch with ordinary Ontarians, willing to build consensus rather than impose policies from on high.

Accessibility has been at the heart of her campaign, both in her platform and her style of pressing the flesh. Running on an agenda that (with the exception of a proposal to increase corporate taxes significantly) eschews many traditional NDP values in favour of pocketbook populism, she is the only one of the three leaders to put herself regularly in unscripted encounters with voters. She insisted on that, she said, because "I get my passion from everyday people."

The question is whether all this pragmatism and her considerable charm cover up a lack of clear ideas about where she wants to take the province. A couple of years into her leadership, fairly new to Queen's Park, does she know enough about government – what is right and wrong with it – to be placed in a position of power?

Watching her on the campaign trail, it is not always easy to tell. She turned in an assured performance during the leaders' debate. But at other times, she has struggled with facts and figures when pressed to go past talking points.

During a visit this week to The Globe and Mail's editorial board, Ms. Horwath confused details of her platform, including implying that a cap on the salaries of public-sector executives would save $20-million, and an acknowledgment that she wasn't sure to what the figure referred.

What voters have to grapple with is how much slack to cut her because she is new and open-minded and unafraid to be challenged.

"I don't only talk to people who are on the same wavelength as I am," she said in the interview, and the way she handles herself on the hustings backs that up.

What she is promising is the very opposite of Mr. McGuinty's father-knows-best style of governing. "You can't be a leader alone, you have to be a leader that's got people following you," she said. "And if you never connect with the people, then what kind of leader are you?"

  • More: Video: In conversation with Andrea Horwath

Mr. Back-to-Basics

Tim Hudak has a tendency to laugh a bit defensively when he thinks an interviewer is trying to trap him. And this particular question got a hearty one.

The Progressive Conservative Leader had been railing against Mr. McGuinty's "big ideas," when he was asked if Ontario needs fewer big ideas in general.

"You need to make decisions," he replied after the chuckle. "You need to set priorities. And big ideas should be about creating wealth in our society, like good private-sector jobs. They don't always have to be about spending more of people's money."

In the rest of the interview, as he has through the campaign, Mr. Hudak made a sustained case for having the government "stick to its knitting."

He's clearest on this front on the subject of developing the province's economy. He has been fairly consistent in arguing that interventionism – of the sort the Liberals are attempting through the Green Energy Act, and a promise to provide venture capital to start-ups – is not the way to create jobs. At an editorial board meeting on Friday, Mr. Hudak vowed to get Ontario out of the "corporate welfare business" and claimed "handouts and grants are always two steps away from corruption."

On other fronts, the meaning of his commitment to narrow government's focus is more open to interpretation. It might be that, as his opponents constantly claim, he's hiding plans to slash programs. But for now, he's only pledging to cut 2 per cent of spending in ministries other than health and education and shrink the number of "redundant" agencies – hardly the stuff of Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution.

Nor is it entirely clear how long Mr. Hudak's aversion to new projects would last. As he acknowledged, even Mr. Harris – under whom he served as a minister – succumbed to a sort of "inertia" in which program spending grew at a rapid pace. And no premier can foresee circumstances such as the ones that forced the province to help bail out the auto industry.

Because Mr. Hudak spends so much time attacking Mr. McGuinty, it can be hard to discern just what sort of premier he himself would be. But he would certainly offer a real and meaningful break from the status quo. Whereas the man who currently holds the premier's office has an abiding faith in the power of government, the PC one who seeks to replace him is distinctly and proudly skeptical about it.

  • More: Video: In conversation with Tim Hudak

The ideas guy

"If you talked to my wife, she'd say I'm crazy," Dalton McGuinty assessed. "If we go on holiday, I'm going to pick up a book on reforming health care somewhere; a book on where does clean energy go next; how do we secure the next electric car production here; how do we get you into an electric car at some point in time. That's the way my mind works."

The Liberal Leader was midway through responding, in long and animated fashion, to the question of whether he has enough gas in his tank for a third term as premier. And in so doing, he effectively summed up everything there is to love and to fear about his governing style.

There is no question that Mr. McGuinty is an ideas guy – more so, by all appearances, than either of the people running against him. In addition to reading the literature, he revels in having access to the best and brightest in their fields, from economists to activists to academics. His staff have plenty of stories about him coming to the office in the morning (or e-mailing late at night) with some new possibility.

In some instances, his wonkishness has served him well – notably in his favourite policy area, education. At other times, it has led to policies (such as sales tax harmonization) that are popular with the experts and less so with the general public. And there are those on which the jury is still out – most notably the province's massive investment in green energy, about which he can sound alarmingly evangelical.

"Come to government, you have this marvellous array of tools," he said of his management style. "To sit back and not use them is a waste of the office. So I think in some quarters, I've been accused of being overly activist. Well, to me, that's the responsibility of the premier, and the government of the day."

The danger for Mr. McGuinty is that voters, concerned about their pocketbooks and cognizant of new economic realities, are wary of what he'll next ask of them as the province tries to get its finances in order.

Even he seems aware there's a degree of fatigue. "I would think I've fulfilled my quota of asking Ontarians to do difficult things," he acknowledged.

But it seems inevitable that, for better or worse, he will pick up where he left off if re-elected.

"Not for me, quietly, passively presiding over the evolution of global economics in Ontario," he said. "No way."

  • More: Video: In conversation with Dalton McGuinty

Candid Questions with the leaders:

What turns you on and off anout politics?

  • Video: People make politics worthwhile for Horwath

Who are you political role models?

  • Video: Parents inspired McGuinty's political path

What would you be doing if you were not in politics?

  • Video: Hudak on quarterbacking the Bills