TORONTO - The biggest challenge of Tim Hudak's life didn't come from the floor of the legislature or the firing line of a media scrum.
It was in a room at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, where his three-year-old daughter Miller lay gravely ill.
The Progressive Conservative leader was in the middle of a gruelling summer tour designed to promote the party's platform. But when his only child was hospitalized in June — for an illness Hudak prefers to keep private — it all ground to a halt.
"It was hell to go through, 26 days in the hospital with the poor little girl," Hudak said in an interview.
His wife Deb Hutton stayed with Miller most nights, but he managed to convince her a few times to go home while he stayed with their daughter.
"In some respects, it's almost a nightmare episode of House," Hudak said, referring to the popular TV show that centres around a brilliant doctor who diagnoses rare and complex cases.
"It was heartbreaking to try to tell a little girl — who's not quite four yet — why she has to go through this, why people are poking and prodding her or knocking her out," he said.
The experience left him emotionally and physically exhausted. But it also deepened his appreciation for the hospital staff who cared for Miller and provided the couple with counselling during "some dark hours," he said.
So when his detractors accuse him of plotting to fire nurses and close hospitals, it doesn't sit well, Hudak said.
Miller's premature birth in the middle of the 2007 election campaign came with complications, he said. The care she received gave him new insight into the importance of the health-care system.
But he'll likely be fighting those accusations every step of the Oct. 6 election campaign, with his opponents anxious to cast him as the clone of his right-wing mentor Mike Harris.
Ask Hudak who he is, and he'll describe himself as a high-school jock who grew up in the Niagara border town of Fort Erie with his younger sister Tricia, the grandchildren of immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia.
Senior aide Carrie Kormos, who grew up on the same street as Hudak, describes the neighbourhood as typically middle-class, where every kid played some kind of sport and would gather for pick-up games of road hockey or hikes in the woods. She often saw Hudak shooting hoops in the front driveway.
Hudak was athletic and made the high-school teams, but he was also very smart, said a source who knew Hudak in his youth.
"One of the smartest guys in the school, actually," the source said. "Always did well in school, never got in any trouble...Most people would have described him as a good student more than they described him a great athlete, to be honest."
His academic acumen may have had something to do with his parents, who were both teachers and community volunteers. His father Pat, a retired Catholic school principal, plays on a seniors' football team in Buffalo that went to the U.S. national championship. His mother Anne Marie, a former physical education and special needs teacher, was a tennis player and three-time town councillor.
Hudak's maternal grandfather, Thomas Dillon, was a union leader in Sarnia's petrochemical industry and a strong CCF and NDP supporter.
But it wasn't until university that he realized his political leanings were more right than left. It was the late 1980s — an "epic time" for the conservative movement, with Ronald Reagan in the White House and Margaret Thatcher ruling Britain. Hudak still counts Regan as one of his idols.
He got hooked on politics by his third-year roommate at the University of Western Ontario — a Tory and high-school friend — who always watched Question Period on TV. But his eureka moment came during an impassioned campus speech on free trade by mercurial Tory minister John Crosbie.
"His belief in his values was also a moment for me when I started thinking, 'This is where I lie on the political spectrum,'" Hudak said.
He volunteered with the local Tory party association and at age 27, rode the 1995 Conservative wave all the way to the Ontario legislature. He was elevated to cabinet after re-election in 1999, with stints in northern development and mining as well as tourism and culture.
The late '90s was a turbulent period in Ontario's history. Harris had an aggressive agenda to slash spending and cut taxes, which sparked walkouts, strikes and even a riot that reached the steps of the legislature.
But even as a rookie, "Even Steven" Hudak weathered it well, said federal minister Tony Clement, who was also part of the Harris government and sat on legislative committees with Hudak.
"He was always fairly calm," Clement said. "He never lost his temper or showed any buckling under pressure — any of those kinds of issues."
The avid rock fan recalls trying to broaden Hudak's musical horizons, which were more "Springsteen-y" in those days, he says.
"I actually dragged him out to a punk band called The Offspring — one of their Toronto concerts," Clement says, chuckling.
"I'm not quite sure what he thought of that, but at least he was game enough to go with me to a quasi-punk band concert."
Hudak also met his wife at Queen's Park. At the time, Hutton was a senior advisor to Harris and held a lot of power in the premier's office.
But there were no goo-goo eyes around the cabinet table, she says. The two didn't start dating until April 2001, about a year after she'd left the legislature.
Mutual friends played matchmaker, trying to throw the two Tories together. It seemed so complicated, Hutton says, that she decided to just bite the bullet.
"I actually called and asked him out," she said.
The two agreed to have dinner at Gamberoni, an Italian restaurant in midtown Toronto. They hit it off, she said. Hudak was easygoing, witty and "extremely well-read" — from sports news to historical biographies to spy thrillers penned by Tom Clancy.
"We could talk about everything from pop culture to music, right through to big theories on world issues," Hutton said.
"For a lot of folks, they only get to talk about the mundane, the small conversation stuff."
The couple, who married in October 2002, share a home in Toronto and a "fixer-upper" in Wellandport. On his off hours, Hudak likes to mountain bike, kayak and barbecue on his cherished smoker, she said.
But there haven't been many off days since Hudak was elected Tory leader two years ago.
He emerged early on as a favourite to win, with a well-oiled organizational team backing him and the support of Harris. Prominent Tories from that era endorsed him during the four-month race, including Clement and John Baird, who now sit at Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet table.
When Hudak won, many predicted the party would swing back to the right and abandon the Red Tory tradition that was the hallmark of its 42-year reign in post-war Ontario.
In many ways, Hudak is a product of the right-leaning rethink that replaced the centrist philosophy practiced by Tory premier Bill Davis, said Bryan Evans, a politics professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.
"He does bring to the party and he's the embodiment of the real shift that has occured within the political culture of the party and indeed, maybe the province and North America more generally," he said.
Like Harper, Hudak has also tried to neutralize controversial issues that could trip him up in an election campaign.
During the leadership race, Hudak adopted a thorny proposal to scrap Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal, an idea first proposed by rival and self-proclaimed libertarian Randy Hillier, who later threw his support behind Hudak.
The other contenders, Frank Klees and Christine Elliott, warned the policy would tank as badly with voters as former leader John Tory's doomed 2007 campaign promise to fund religious schools, handing the ruling Liberals another easy victory.
The debate took a nasty turn when Hudak accused Klees of being "Liberal-lite" for opposing the idea.
Then in May — just three months to go before the provincial campaign — Hudak quietly backed away from the proposal.
In July, he tried to sidestep another potential political grenade: abortion. Hudak, who signed a petition in 1998 calling for the defunding of abortions, has vowed not to re-open the debate as premier.
But he refused to say if he still opposed abortion, walking away from reporters when asked if he still considers himself pro-life.
While Hudak sometimes borrows from Harper's playbook, he isn't quite the same strongman when it comes to controlling his caucus.
He's had trouble reining in rebels like Hillier, who unexpectedly joined a staged sit-in over the HST in the legislature in 2009 with colleague Bill Murdoch, whose rule-flouting antics didn't sit well with a few senior Tories.
Hudak is also knocked for doggedly sticking to his political script, repeating prepared talking points over and over even when they have little to do with the questions he's being asked.
It makes him come across as too glib, said Henry Jacek, a politics professor at Hamilton's McMaster University.
"In some ways his message track is a dumbed down message track for some sort of average person who's never had a course in economics and worries only about his household budget," he said. "He’s dumbed down his message because he thinks the populist message is going to play."
His evasiveness on the abortion issue — initially saying he couldn't remember if he'd signed the petition — was a big mistake, Jacek added.
"The Liberals will nail him on that, the fact he didn't own up to it real quick," he said.
"You've got to maintain your perception that you're levelling with people and he comes across sometimes as too glib. He’s too much on message track and he dodges these tough questions. The Liberals are not going to let him get away with that."
But others see Hudak's ability to stay on message as an asset, rather than a weakness.
Staying focused is part of the leadership litmus test, said Clement.
"There's a lot of people in politics who tend to run around with their hair on fire," he said.
"So I think that's perfectly appropriate that he's not distracted by shiny objects or by the issue du jour. He's actually got a pretty good head on his shoulders. He knows what he wants to accomplish and he's going to pursue it."