Kathleen Wynne fought a war on two fronts Tuesday as she battled to preserve the Ontario Liberals' decade-long hold on power in the lone leaders debate ahead of the June 12 election.
Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak and New Democrat Andrea Horwath ganged up on the incumbent, sometimes shouting over each other as they slammed Ms. Wynne on her government's spending scandals.
The stakes in the debate could not be higher. Coming just nine days before the vote – and with the Liberals and Tories in a dead heat in the polls – it was the only chance for the three to square off and blow open a tight race.
Wearing dark suits and grave expressions as they stood on the stark stage, all three leaders set a serious tone. With the province's sputtering economy as the central issue, the vote is a choice between Ms. Wynne's stimulus spending, Mr. Hudak's budget-cutting laissez-faire policies and Ms. Horwath's populism.
The opposition leaders put Ms. Wynne on the defensive for the first of many times as they pressed her on the billion-dollar cancellation of two gas-fired power plants.
They pushed her on a cabinet document, which Ms. Wynne signed, that authorized negotiations with the company building one of the plants.
"You had a chance not to sign that document. You might call it a mistake, but others call it corruption," Ms. Horwath thundered.
"Yours is the signature on that contract that sold taxpayers up the river. You had a choice. You could have said no and saved us a billion dollars – why didn't you just say no?" Mr. Hudak added.
Ms. Wynne – standing at the middle lectern and facing a barrage on both sides – at first tried to ignore the exchange and instead discuss her proposal to create a new provincial pension plan. Eventually she responded to the attacks, but refused to look directly at either of the other leaders as she replied.
"I did not direct all the decisions and I have said that they were wrong," she said of the gas plants. "I need you to understand that I take responsibility; I was part of a government that made decisions that were not the right decisions."
Ms. Wynne used the bout to cast the election as a choice between her left-tilting agenda to double pension benefits and pump billions into social spending, and Mr. Hudak's budget-slashing measures and plan to cut 100,000 public-sector jobs.
In one exchange, when Mr. Hudak pressed her repeatedly to distance herself from her predecessor Dalton McGuinty, Ms. Wynne refused to even acknowledge his questions, instead speaking to the camera.
"My fear is that what Tim Hudak is suggesting would actually push us back to recession," she said. "One hundred thousand families would suffer from losing a job or a breadwinner."
She got in a few digs at Mr. Hudak's claim he can create a million jobs, pointing to several economists who exposed a mathematical error in his work that caused him to count some jobs eight times. Often, however, she repeated herself and took many minutes to make a single point.
Mr. Hudak, for his part, pivoted between barbed attacks on Ms. Wynne and stretches where he tried to cast himself as a potential premier, calmly speaking directly into the camera and delivering summaries of his platform points.
He repeatedly told viewers his tough talk made him "the only honest" leader on the stage. And partway through the debate, he promised to step down if he failed to balance the budget in two years or create a million new jobs in eight.
"If I don't actually carry through on my plan, if I don't keep my promises in the Million Jobs Plan, I'll resign. I'll step down. That's how confident I am in my pledge," he said.
He also tried to soften his image by casting his attacks on Ms. Wynne as disappointment more than anger.
"I've known you a long time – we've spent a lot of time in your office," he told her. "I respect the work that you did. But you've changed."
He also went easy on Ms. Horwath, allowing many of her attacks on him to go unanswered and telling her more than once, "I agree with you."
Ms. Horwath, meanwhile, spent most of the debate on the offensive as she tried to breathe life into her trailing campaign. And she leaned heavily on scripted zingers.
Taking aim at the arithmetic error in the PCs' job-creation figures, she said: "There's no doubt Mr. Hudak's Million Jobs Plan has a million math mistakes in it."
"Your tough medicine is not Buckley's," she told Mr. Hudak of his austerity pledges. "It tastes awful but it's not going to work."
And taking aim at both of the other leaders, she charged: "You don't have to choose between bad ethics and bad math."