09/16/2011 06:07 EDT | Updated 11/16/2011 05:12 EST

Wedge campaign hurting Ontario Tories but election far from over, analysts say

TORONTO - Wedge politics and negative campaigning have backfired for Ontario's Tory leader, who polls suggested went into the provincial election as the clear front-runner, observers said Friday.

At the same time, they said, all three main party leaders still have plenty of time before voting day Oct. 6 to win over the electorate or, perhaps, to step irreversibly in campaign doo-doo.

"We've had a bit of a game-changer so far," said Bryan Evans, a political science professor at Ryerson University.

"The Liberals have found their footing, the Tories have lost theirs and the NDP are holding on to what they had."

Much of the first 10 days of the campaign that officially began Sept. 7 was dominated by Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak's attack on a Liberal proposal to help new Canadian professionals find their first jobs.

Hudak, who blasted Premier Dalton McGuinty for wanting to help "foreign workers" at the expense of other jobless Ontarians followed up by attacking the Liberals for "coddling" criminals.

"The Tories are trying to come up with wedge issues, but nothing seems to stick," said Larry Savage, who teaches political science at Brock University.

"As the front-runner, he should have steered clear of these wedge issues (because) it looks like they've blown up in his face because they polarize people."

While Hudak needs to play to his conservative support base, observers said his challenge is to expand his appeal to a much broader swath of the electorate.

So far, however, his approach appears to have missed that mark, with polls either suggesting a much tighter contest or giving the Liberals the edge.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has opted to stay away from the mudslinging but polls suggest her campaign has yet to gain significant traction.

Peter Landry, a long-time Ontario bureaucrat and former chief of staff to a Liberal cabinet minister, said Hudak may have misread the public mood over the McGuinty's proposal to help newcomers.

"The Conservatives got a little bit seduced by initial reaction," Landry said.

"I suspect it was just their base reinforcing some of those values that don't resonate with many Ontarians."

While McGuinty might have been facing voter fatigue with his two-term government heading into the campaign, analysts said the uncertain economic climate might now be playing in his favour.

At the same time, Hudak's wedge politics — a reminder of the polarizing game played by former Conservative premier Mike Harris — are only serving to make voters uneasy.

"We are hobbling along at one level and people are reluctant to opt for any kind of radical change," Evans said.

"People are being cautious."

Ultimately, unless Hudak or Horwath can find a defining issue that appeals to voters, the campaign will likely come down to who avoids making a big mistake, Landry said.

"There's still lots of opportunity for accidents from all three parties," Landry said.

McGuinty, a seasoned and confident campaigner up against two opponents on their first campaigns as party leaders, is least likely to make such an error, observers said.