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The Liberals came out of the gate in this election season with a series of attention-grabbing promises.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Steven Del Duca got so wrapped up in rhyming off his housing policies at a recent campaign stop in Toronto’s east end, the Ontario Liberal Leader forgot to explain why he invited reporters to this weed-choked vacant lot next to a graffiti-strewn derelict building.

When a reporter asked why the event was being held on this site next to GO Train tracks, Mr. Del Duca said the land is being sold by Metrolinx, the province’s transit agency. He says he would instead create a new government corporation to turn property such as this into affordable housing and make the units available only to first-time buyers.

This is Mr. Del Duca in a nutshell, those who know him say: a details-focused policy wonk who is substance over flash – and who has worked hard behind the scenes to revive his moribund party after it was kicked out of government in 2018 and reduced to just seven seats.

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In an interview, Mr. Del Duca argues that Ontarians, only now starting to pay attention before the June 2 election, are looking for competent leaders in government, not the “folksy but empty words” offered by Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford.

“I think to myself if I or a loved one was literally being wheeled into the operating room … and I saw the doctor, would I want to know that the doctor had a dazzling smile or a great hairstyle?” he asks. “Or would I want to know that that doctor paid attention when he went to medical school or she went to medical school?”

The Liberals came out of the gate in this election season with a series of attention-grabbing promises, such as a “buck-a-ride” pledge to reduce all transit fares temporarily to $1 and another to bring back an optional Grade 13. But published polls so far in the campaign have kept the Liberals second to Mr. Ford, with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party has served as Official Opposition for the past four years, in third.

The NDP and the Liberals have also taken aim at each other in what some observers call a “progressive primary,” a fight for the anti-Ford vote. Both parties accuse the other of sniping at fellow progressives instead of concentrating on Mr. Ford.

Barring an upheaval that sinks Mr. Ford, strategists from both main opposition campaigns have insisted it could be possible to strip him of his majority, depending on how a number of close races go.

One senior Liberal strategist conceded that a more realistic scenario for the party is a “two-election strategy” that would see it regain party status this time round before mounting a proper challenge in 2026. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the strategist because they were not authorized to speak for the campaign.

When he won his ailing party’s leadership in 2020, just before COVID-19 hit, Mr. Del Duca sold himself as the master-organizer candidate who would get the party’s machinery running again in time to defeat Mr. Ford in this election. It was a massive task. After the near electoral wipeout, scores of the party’s riding associations were essentially defunct and it was $10-million in debt. Many Liberals have said that the membership felt ignored by the party brass.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, fundraising paid off the debt and Mr. Del Duca put two of his former leadership rivals in charge of a listening exercise that resulted in the new platform. Among its promises: a return to rent control; an end to for-profit long-term care; billions for health care and mental health; 10 paid sick days for workers; a cap on class sizes of 20; and the cancellation of Mr. Ford’s $10-billion proposed Highway 413, with that money earmarked instead to repair schools.

Don Guy, a pollster and strategist who has been offering advice to the campaign, says Mr. Del Duca spends hours immersed in the details of policy files.

”I think he’s very motivated to find solutions to help people,” he said. “So as a result, he digs really deep into policy. And it kind of shows, in all the conversation about [how] he speaks without notes and all that. He’s a bit of a supercomputer.”

The relatively unknown Mr. Del Duca, having lost his own seat in 2018, was mostly reintroduced to voters via long-running attack ads from both the NDP and PCs, which showed him, as transportation minister, laughing alongside unpopular Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne.

Mr. Del Duca has also had to defend his move while in the transportation portfolio to override the province’s Metrolinx transit planners in 2016 and approve plans for a GO Station in his riding.

The party rebuild has also shown some growing pains: Four Liberal candidates with embarrassing pasts or who were facing allegations have been turfed or forced to quit. Mr. Del Duca is also facing a tough fight in his own riding of Vaughan-Woodbridge, against Michael Tibollo, an associate cabinet minister in the Ford government.

The Liberals have produced a series of online videos that portray Mr. Del Duca, 48, as an average suburban dad and a child of immigrant parents.

His family was hit with the sudden loss of Mr. Del Duca’s younger brother, Michael, in a car accident in 2018. The Liberal Leader said he kept a childhood photo of him with his brother, who was 12 years his junior, in his jacket pocket during the televised leaders’ debate earlier this month. The realization that he is gone still hits Mr. Del Duca occasionally like an “electric shock.”

A Liberal activist, organizer and political aide involved since his teens, Mr. Del Duca has an Osgoode Hall law degree, but has not practised. He worked as director of public affairs for the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario union before he was first elected as an MPP in Vaughan-Woodbridge in 2012, replacing his retiring long-time political mentor, former finance minister Greg Sorbara.

Even Mr. Sorbara says forming a government on Mr. Del Duca’s first try after reviving a “comatose” party is a tall order. But he says Mr. Del Duca has a keen eye for policy and makes up for a lack of charisma with hard work.

“He’s had a natural affinity for this work for a very long time, and he’s good at it,” Mr. Sorbara said in an interview. “Does he have that kind of Barack Obama charisma? No. He’s always known that. As a matter of fact, he makes fun of the fact that they forgot the charisma when they put the genes together.”

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