On Aug. 15, the day Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau launched the federal election campaign, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s chief strategist made a prediction.
“Once again, @erinotoole begins a campaign as the underdog,” Dan Robertson tweeted. “This isn’t the first time he’s been underestimated, but it will be the last.”
No one is underestimating Mr. O’Toole today, not least the Liberals. The two leaders and the two parties are running neck and neck in the polls. Either leader could be prime minister after Sept. 20.
Those of us who underestimated Mr. O’Toole failed to appreciate the intensity of his will to win – perhaps the single most important ingredient in the making of a successful politician.
That will to win reveals itself in several ways. Mr. O’Toole has lost 35 pounds over the past year and a half or so, mostly by running daily, which he says also helps to clear his mind.
Some people thought Mr. O’Toole would not even seek the Conservative leadership because his French was inadequate. But he has been working diligently to improve it. My colleague Campbell Clark described Mr. O’Toole’s French as “a little wooden, but serviceable” in last week’s TVA debate.
The Conservative Leader possesses two qualities his predecessors, Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper, noticeably lacked. The first is a willingness – even eagerness – to engage with crowds. Mr. O’Toole is an extroverted leader who enjoys interacting with the public, a quality he shares with Mr. Trudeau.
The second is a tactical flexibility both previous leaders lacked. Mr. Harper sometimes got hung up on a principle that cost him politically, such as cutting arts funding prior to the 2008 election. Mr. Scheer simply could not, or would not, do whatever was necessary to put allegations of hidden agendas on abortion and LGBTQ rights to rest.
When Mr. O’Toole discovered that his pledge to repeal restrictions on certain firearms was hurting him in this election campaign, he quickly reversed himself. Flip-flops are bad, but declaring that a particular issue is a hill you are willing to die on, and then dying on it, is worse.
Political extroversion and tactical flexibility in the relentless pursuit of power makes Mr. O’Toole the most Liberal leader the Conservatives have ever had. I mean this as a compliment.
Mr. Trudeau, having underestimated his opponent just as Mr. Robertson predicted, is now furiously counterattacking. Forget about “Build Back Better” or “Choose Forward.” The Liberal campaign has devolved into a no-holds-barred effort to slag Mr. O’Toole. He is in thrall to the gun lobby, the Liberal war room asserts. He courts vaccine hesitant individuals, he would privatize health care, he would limit abortion rights.
The latest slur is the allegation he denies global warming, despite the Conservatives’ credible plan to fight climate change. “Can’t expect him to care about something he doesn’t believe exists,” Liberal candidate Patty Hajdu tweeted Tuesday. Now really.
History suggests Mr. O’Toole will lose this election. Ontario voters have a lot to say about who forms the federal government, and they like to kick the tires with leaders. Provincially, they handed Progressive Conservative Mike Harris (in 1990) and Liberal Dalton McGuinty (in 1999) defeats, before rewarding them with victories in the subsequent elections. They did the same to Mr. Harper in 2004. They may well do the same with Mr. O’Toole in 2021.
In the 2004 and 2019 elections, Liberals hauled out the hidden-agenda strategy when they found themselves on the ropes, and it worked. It may work again.
But Mr. O’Toole has silenced all reasonable doubts about his ability to lead the Conservative Party. And who knows? Mr. Trudeau is sufficiently unpopular, and the hidden-agenda trope so patently concocted, that voters might not buy the boogeyman argument this time, just as they failed to buy it in the 2006 election that made Mr. Harper prime minister.
Whatever happens, Dan Robertson was right. No one will ever underestimate Erin O’Toole again.
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