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Andrea Horwath is going all in on "Steeltown Scrapper."

The moniker fellow New Democrats gave their Hamiltonian leader back in 2011 fits much better during her second campaign at their helm, as her previously sunny public demeanour is replaced by a hot-under-the-collar combativeness. That was on display during Monday's debate on northern issues with Kathleen Wynne, as the NDP Leader responded to questions about regional concerns by railing against Liberal "corruption."

Considering that only months ago Ms. Horwath was still making a virtue of her willingness to work with the Liberals, it's startling that she is now more aggressive than Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak in assailing them. But it's easier to understand in light of new research that shows how the party leaders connected, or didn't, with voters during this campaign's first weeks.

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In partnership with The Globe and Mail, Innovative Research Group has set up the "Listening Post Network" – an online panel that engages Ontarians in tracking what the parties are saying and doing in their outreach activities. It aims partly to measure the impressions formed by voters who share the same partisan orientation, helping to understand whether the parties are rallying their own supporters or appealing to supporters of other parties or voters who haven't made up their minds yet.

Among the most striking findings in the Listening Post survey – conducted between May 16 and 22, with over 700 participants – were big signs of trouble for the NDP.

Most significant was a widespread sense that this is a two-horse race between the Liberals and PCs – a view held not just by a strong majority of the Liberal voters Ms. Horwath might want to win over, but also roughly 40 per cent of self-identified New Democrats.

That perception is a big obstacle for the NDP in any election, and an enormous one this time. While there is a strong desire for a change in government among people who don't self-identify as Liberals, there is also much fear of Mr. Hudak. Eighty-three per cent of survey respondents who identify as Liberals, 73 per cent of those who identify as NDP supporters, and 57 per cent of those "unaligned" agreed that they're "afraid of what Tim Hudak and the PCs might do if they form government."

There are various explanations for why the "two-way" narrative seems to be taking hold, but one of the more convincing is that Ms. Horwath just didn't register much in the race's early stages.

In the survey, roughly the same number of participants – 79 per cent and 78 per cent, respectively – said they had "read, seen or heard" something in the previous few days about Ms. Wynne and the Liberals and Mr. Hudak and the Tories, and only 52 per cent said the same about Ms. Horwath and the NDP. Even among self-identified New Democrats, 77 per cent said they noticed Ms. Wynne's Liberals, next to 53 per cent who said they noticed Ms. Horwath's New Democrats.

That research was conducted mostly before the campaign's advertising blackout lifted on May 21. Given the ability to market more aggressively, and next week's regular leaders' debate, Ms. Horwath still has plenty of opportunity to join the fight for the premier's office.

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Her hope remains to build enough momentum in Southwestern Ontario – where the NDP could pick up several seats, and where her Steeltown Scrapper persona tends to play best – that it spills over to elsewhere. But there is no mistaking that as she tries to avoid being elbowed out of the race, she is leading with her own elbows more than ever before.

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