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Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath says her biggest priority is consultation on jobs.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The question is about her first campaign at the helm of the provincial NDP, a little more than a year ago, and Andrea Horwath interjects before it's finished. "I was scared to death!" she blurts out, laughing.

It's a reminder, midway through a 45-minute interview in her Queen's Park office, of the unassuming and occasionally disarming charm that has made her the most popular party leader in Ontario. Warm and down to Earth, ever so slightly unpolished, she's someone voters can relate to more easily than the opponents she's found herself up against.

If only some more niceness were all that Ontario needed, Ms. Horwath would rightfully be a lock to become the next premier – a job that, with Dalton McGuinty on his way out and the leaderless Liberals languishing in third place, is very much up for grabs.

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But in a province $14-billion in deficit, its economic recovery tenuous at best, strong ideas about how to achieve a brighter future might also be in order. And to spend some time pressing her for those is to come away with the impression that, potentially only a few months from an election in which she'll be seriously competing for power, she hasn't figured out what she would do with it.

Asked how a left-of-centre government could pursue its priorities in such a crunch, she says she's been conferring with New Democrats who have governed through tough times in other provinces. But she gives little sense where that's taken her, other than the "job creation tax credit" that's among the few policies she's been pushing for a while.

On the question of whether Ontario's government spends too much, she falls back on a few recent scandals – eHealth, Ornge, cancelled power plants – without delving much into whether the basic framework still fits. She subscribes, she says, to the old saying that "if you look after the dimes, the dollars take care of themselves."

Is it time to look seriously at raising taxes, perhaps on the corporate side, rather than just addressing program spending? Here she gives a little. "When you talk about taking a balanced approach, you look at both sides of the equation." But that's as far as she goes.

Might it be necessary to push back the 2017-18 target date for eliminating the deficit? "At this point, we're committed to that timeline, until we put together our next plan – until we take the time to look at where things are at when that plan is developed."

As for the governing Liberals' ongoing fight with public-sector workers, from which her party has benefited, she commits to the "negotiation process" that the province has begun to bypass through legislated settlements. But she doesn't explain how she would achieve concessions that she seems to agree are needed.

There are politicians who try to paper over their lack of policy specifics; Ms. Horwath wears them as a badge of honour. "I don't necessarily believe that the way to do things is to sit in isolation, make up a whole bunch of policies based on internal brainstorming, and then sell that to the public," she says. So she recently launched a "consultation on jobs," which she identifies as her biggest priority, three-and-a-half years after winning the leadership.

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It's a marked contrast to the approach of Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who is putting out a series of "white papers" that float stridently right-of-centre positions on everything from tax cuts to labour policy to health care. And for now, Ms. Horwath's low-risk approach seems to be working fairly well, with her party capitalizing on voter unrest as much or more than Mr. Hudak's.

It's not hard to see why. Mr. McGuinty is leaving office amid perceptions that he grew out of touch after too long in power, running a closed shop more concerned with self-preservation than Ontarians' concerns. Mr. Hudak, after a poor introduction to voters in last year's campaign, is struggling to shake an image as a typical politician willing to say whatever he thinks voters want to hear. Being open and accessible and not claiming to have all the answers has considerable appeal.

But the scrutiny of elections is different from what happens in between them – particularly if, after all parties managed to duck the province's fiscal realities last campaign, media and voters alike have higher expectations.

As Ms. Horwath noted half-jokingly, she'll be a veteran in the next campaign, up against a rookie premier and a PC Leader she preceded by a few months. She won't be scared to death, knowing what to expect. If she's leading a week or two into that race, though, she'll face a whole other level of scrutiny. If Ontarians are looking for more than a mirror, she has some work to do.

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