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Wynne needs to ramp it up

Kathleen Wynne was widely expected to be the flag-bearer for the Liberals' centre-left. Instead, seeking to prove she can be trusted with the province's finances, she's coming off more like a technocrat – making promises like a lower debt-to-GDP ratio after 2017-18 the centrepiece of her economic plan.

Following Thursday's debate at the Canadian Club, an operative from one of the other leadership camps observed that Ms. Wynne is suffering from a bad case of "Ministeritis." The point was that, after more than six years in cabinet, she's talking too much in language that bureaucrats would love, and getting overshadowed by her opponents in the process.

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Ms. Wynne makes a better impression one-on-one and has a strong organization, which should put her in good position heading into the Liberals' late-January convention. But she may need to start putting forward a more forceful persona, to avoid fears about her ability to fight a general election as early as next spring.

Pupatello needs to tone it down

The other perceived front-runner alongside Ms. Wynne, Sandra Pupatello, is nothing if not fiery. That's a big part of the former economic development minister's appeal; with the Liberals feeling downtrodden, she's trying to present herself as the one candidate ready to go guns-a-blazin' into that coming election.

So far, though, Ms. Pupatello has been a little too hot. Watching the webcast of last weekend's debate in Ingersoll, Ont., it felt as though she was ready to jump through the screen. And while her demeanour was calmer in the two subsequent events, she managed to needlessly offend other Liberals, including competitors whose support she may need at the convention. Appearing with the other candidates on TVOntario Thursday night, Ms. Pupatello claimed that "nobody" has been talking about the economy since she left government last year, prompting a mild pile-on from the other candidates. Giving her opponents an opportunity to band together against her is the last thing she should want to do.

Sousa has game

At the Canadian Club, Charles Sousa seized on a tangentially related question about green energy to address the elephant in the room: his role in the costly cancellation of a power plant being built in his Mississauga riding. The experience, he suggested, proved he understands the importance of listening to community concerns to avoid getting into such situations in the first place.

That controversy may still prove an albatross for the former citizenship and immigration minister. But his deft attempt to head it off was in keeping with a confident communication style that he has displayed through the first three all-candidates meetings – one that allows him to alternately be slightly cocky and self-effacing, and translates well on TV.

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Presenting himself as a moderately right-leaning candidate of the suburbs, Mr. Sousa looks and sounds almost stereotypically premier-like. That may or may not work to his advantage, in a race with two female front-runners, but it's turning a few heads.

Hoskins has potential

Notwithstanding an impressive résumé that includes co-founding War Child Canada, and a recent cabinet stint, Eric Hoskins is the greenest of the candidates. That showed with a campaign launch in which he looked overwhelmed to find himself in the spotlight.

While he still has some odd tics – he probably doesn't need to refer to "my spouse, Dr. Samantha Nutt," in literally every public appearance – the youthful 52-year-old is visibly improving by the day. Honing a social-conscience pitch that involves addressing child poverty and a "crisis" in youth unemployment, he's increasingly speaking succinctly and with conviction.

Having released some impressive fundraising numbers on Friday, Dr. Hoskins will be cast as a dark horse. Realistically, his late start on signing up new members makes it unlikely that he'll have a serious play at the convention. But if he continues on the same curve, he'll have established himself as a player by the time the race is done.

Murray and Takhar have ideas

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With the possible exception of Gerard Kennedy, Glen Murray and Harinder Takhar have the most improbable paths to power. Mr. Murray, a former Winnipeg mayor, has irritated too many colleagues since coming to Queen's Park in 2010. Mr. Takhar, a veteran minister with subpar communication skills and a past ethics controversy around his private business, will be hard-pressed to win broad-based support.

They've also proven the candidates most willing to put forward new policy ideas. Mr. Murray has pledged major changes to the tax system, including "middle-class" relief and a new series of incentives aimed at stimulating "innovation." Mr. Takhar has been the only candidate to propose accelerating deficit elimination, and has backed it up with a fair amount of detail on how to trim spending. That could give the long-shot candidates an interesting role at the convention. As Mr. Murray hinted during Thursday's TVO appearance, front-runners may have to adopt some of their policies to get their support.

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