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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole speaks during a campaign stop at Prarieland Park, in Saskatoon, Sask., on Aug. 20.KAYLE NEIS/AFP/Getty Images

In the weeks prior to the launch of this election campaign, some of Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s harshest critics were within his own party, after he took the huge risk of breaking with the right wing of the base. But that risk appears to be paying off.

Rattled by tightening polls and a lacklustre opening week, Liberals have trotted out the hoary “hidden agenda” attack, accusing Mr. O’Toole of wanting to privatize health care, of opposing vaccine mandates and of seeking to limit a woman’s right to choose.

The Liberals have been employing this hidden-agenda bogeyman, with varying degrees of success, for decades. But this time Mr. O’Toole has moved to insulate himself from such attacks. It appears to be working.

As previously noted, in the weeks preceding the election call, the Conservatives seemed to be in dire straits. Mr. O’Toole had won the leadership by appealing to the right wing of the party. But then he shifted position, proposing a climate-change plan that put a price on carbon, emphasizing support for LGBTQ rights and a woman’s right to choose, and promoting the cause of workers while critiquing big business.

He compounded these policy shifts with a perception of weakness, by failing to prevent Tory backbenchers from filibustering legislation to ban conversion therapy for minors – legislation that Mr. O’Toole supported. And delegates at the Conservative policy convention rejected his efforts to get them to take climate change seriously.

By early August, backbenchers were grumbling, social conservatives were angry, supporters of the oil-and-gas industry felt betrayed, some of those loyal to Mr. O’Toole were worried and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau appeared to be on the cusp of winning a majority government.

But boy oh boy, campaigns sure do matter. One week in, the Liberals and Conservatives are neck and neck in the polls, Mr. O’Toole appears confident and energized, and the Grits are reduced to shouting, “Hidden agenda! Hidden agenda!”

That accusation has been undermined by missteps. First, Liberals accused Mr. O’Toole of opposing their plan for mandatory vaccinations of federal government workers, only to have the Treasury Board issue guidelines, since withdrawn, that mirrored the Conservative position.

Then they accused Mr. O’Toole of wanting to privatize health care, tweeting out a video of a statement that Mr. O’Toole made during the leadership campaign. Except the video had been edited, and Mr. O’Toole’s remarks distorted. Twitter promptly slapped a “manipulated media,” tag on the tweet, as the Tories howled their protest to Yves Côté, Commissioner of Elections Canada.

That didn’t stop Mr. Trudeau from saying on Monday that Mr. O’Toole “wants to go back to the Harper era of cuts to health care and private investments.” (Mr. O’Toole supports greater use of private-sector companies in providing publicly funded care, a practice that is already widespread, though opposed by many on the left.) But it didn’t help the Liberal case that Mr. O’Toole came out early with a pledge for substantially increased health care funding, well before Mr. Trudeau revealed his.

On the weekend, Mr. O’Toole promised more rehab spaces to fight opioid abuse. And on Monday, he said that federally regulated large employers would be required to have worker representation on their board of directors.

These are hardly the actions of a closet hard-right-winger skulking around with a hidden agenda under his black cape.

Mr. O’Toole remains less popular as a leader than Mr. Trudeau, and much less popular than NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. As yet, there is no convincing evidence that middle-class voters in suburban cities – especially those surrounding Toronto, where elections are won and lost – are shifting from red to blue. And no one should ever underestimate the skill of the Liberal war room.

But the political landscape has changed. A week ago, the question was whether Mr. Trudeau would be able to secure a majority government. Unless and until the dynamic of the campaign shifts back in the Liberals favour, a majority is very much in doubt, because Mr. O’Toole took a big risk that appears to be paying off.

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