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Close Ontario Polls Suggest Kathleen Wynne's Government May Survive

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The delicate balancing act of keeping her minority government in power began yesterday, as Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s throne speech reached out to both sides of the aisle. Wynne and her opposition counterparts will be walking on eggshells until the new government’s first budget, expected in April or March.

The Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats are in a close three-way race now that Wynne has taken over, with the first polls conducted since the Ontario leadership convention putting the parties within a few points of one another. With such a close race out of the starting gate, each party has almost even odds of victory after a month-long campaign.

This situation may not last for very long. When the Ontario Liberals tanked in the polls last fall, Dalton McGuinty’s approval ratings were amongst the lowest in the country. With Wynne as leader, the Liberals have a whiff of novelty that separates the current administration ever so slightly from the last one. It seems clear Wynne’s leadership has resulted in an early boost for the Liberals, as they have led in two of the three polls that have been released since she took over.

Where will her numbers go from here? Either the novelty will wear off and Ontarians will not like what they see, or they will be impressed and the Liberals will move definitively ahead in the polls. How the throne speech and budget are received will likely play a major role in deciding the direction of the party’s fortunes.

It appears that under Wynne the Liberals will be leaning more to the left, and electorally that might be a clever strategy. While the Progressive Conservatives have hardly budged in the polls since the October 2011 election, the New Democrats have made significant inroads -- almost entirely at the expense of the Liberals.

By adopting some of the NDP’s demands, Wynne will make it difficult for Andrea Horwath to justify defeating the government, particularly when Ontarians just want their politicians to get along and get things done.

And encroaching on the NDP’s turf will also put pressure on Horwath’s newfound support. With the race as close as it is, Wynne will not need to attract many NDP-supporting Liberals back into the fold to put herself in a strong position.

The Tories have their own problems. Despite presenting a more serious and thoughtful side since the last campaign, Tim Hudak remains the most unpopular of the three main party leaders. His approval ratings are quite low, even among PC voters. He was unable to take advantage of the unpopularity of the McGuinty government in 2011 or when Liberal fortunes hit rock bottom last year. In fact, the Progressive Conservatives are currently polling below their result in the last election.

With the Liberals moving to the the left, Hudak may be able to stake out ground on the centre-right, but how he is personally perceived could limit his party’s potential for growth.

The lack of confidence the leaders should have about a positive electoral outcome -- not to mention the potential for a career-ending catastrophe -- may be what keeps this minority legislature functioning for the rest of the year.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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