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While Hudak licks his wounds, Ontario Tories look to the future

On the toughest night of his political career, Tim Hudak delivered his concession speech. He went to his Niagara hotel suite, and said goodnight to his wife. And then he went downstairs and partied with staff and friends until 3 a.m.

He was, by all accounts, disappointed with his failure to win an Ontario election most everyone believed was his for the taking. But with his difficult first campaign as leader of the Progressive Conservatives out of the way, he clearly felt a weight off his shoulders.

If Mr. Hudak's frustration is tinged with optimism, as his public comments since Thursday night have suggested, it's with good reason. His grip on the leadership secure, he still has a very good chance to lead the Tories back to the promised land.

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But first, he will need to take the unpleasant lessons of this fall's campaign to heart.

Mr. Hudak's first order of business will be to build a more cohesive team behind him. Leading up to the campaign, sources say, there was division between the leader's office and the campaign office. It culminated in a mid-summer power struggle, coinciding with Mr. Hudak having to take time off because of his daughter's health problems, that muddled the Tories' messaging and cost them some of the momentum they'd accumulated in the previous couple of years.

Multiple sources confirmed on Friday that Mr. Hudak is parting ways with his chief of staff, Lynette Corbett. Ian Robertson, a senior stafffer in Mr. Hudak's office before the election - and a staple on his bus during the campaign - is the likely candidate to replace her. And it's expected that other significant changes in the leader's office will soon follow.

It remains to be seen if the campaign team will get a similar shakeup; notably, whether Mark Spiro, who ran this campaign, will get a chance to run another one.

But beyond just establishing a more harmonious workplace, whoever is behind the scenes will have to work with Mr. Hudak on something more important: fashioning a compelling argument for why he wants to be premier.

There are many things PC insiders blame for the erosion of their big pre-election lead, and the stunning resurgence of Dalton McGuinty's Liberals. First on the list are union-funded advertisements attacking Mr. Hudak. Slightly further down are unfavourable media coverage, and the proliferation of polls that showed their support collapsing (to an exaggerated extent) in the campaign's final days.

But a few Tories, at least, are also willing to look at their own failure to introduce Mr. Hudak in a positive way. They concede that they never gave voters a chance to warm to him, the way people who know him privately tend to do.

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Mr. Hudak fell into a familiar trap for a first-time leader. Rather than trying to establish a distinct identity and agenda, he mostly just sold himself as not being the long-time incumbent. "Changebook," the Tories' platform, offered very little change at all – effectively telling voters they could keep most of Mr. McGuinty's policies, without keeping Mr. McGuinty. At every campaign event, Mr. Hudak talked excessively about the Premier and little about himself.

Dating back to last year, Mr. Hudak's officials insisted that they knew Mr. McGuinty was a strong campaigner who wouldn't go down without a fight. But in unguarded moments, some of them would say it was impossible for the Liberals to win again. And they were clearly unprepared when Mr. McGuinty was able to push back against voter fatigue.

To the extent that Mr. Hudak did establish his own list of priorities, it was a peculiar one. Aside from his support for lower taxes, he is now best known for favouring a return to chain gangs, labelling recent immigrants as "foreign workers," and railing against sex education in schools.

Through most of the campaign, senior Tories insisted these issues would find favour among their target voters. But there is little indication that those policies – the product of focus groups more than personal passions – really excited Mr. Hudak or even most of his advisers.

Most people don't pay rapt attention to provincial politics, but they're capable of detecting sincerity. And when leaders lack it, they don't command much trust.

If Mr. Hudak is searching for encouragement, as he tries to rectify that, he need only look to the man whose job he wants.

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With a few days left in the campaign, a veteran Liberal offered some insight: Mr. Hudak in 2011, he said, is much like Mr. McGuinty was in 1999.

In his first election as leader, Mr. McGuinty tried only to cast himself as a passable alternative to then-premier Mike Harris – and was promptly trounced. But by the next campaign, he and his advisers had figured out how to craft his own characteristics and convictions into a persona that could be sold on its own merits.

On Thursday night, according to the supporters who were unwinding alongside him, Mr. Hudak was entirely comfortable in his own skin. Between now and the next election, he'll try to figure out how to be that way on the campaign trail.

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Political Feature Writer

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

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