TORONTO - It appears "Ford" may be turning into a four-letter word in the Ontario election campaign.
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak tried desperately to avoid saying the Toronto mayor's name Monday, appearing only too conscious of a possible backlash against Rob Ford that may scare off provincial voters who otherwise might have voted for the Tories.
Once considered a key ally in Hudak's drive to become Ontario's next premier, analysts now say Ford may turn out to be one of the most effective weapons Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals have in their bid for re-election Oct. 6.
It was just about a year ago that Ford blew into city hall on the strength of a populist campaign that promised tax cuts, an end to unnecessary spending, and halting the "gravy train."
"Ford tapped in to a feeling among the public that tax dollars aren't spent as wisely and well as they should be," Liberal strategist Bob Richardson said recently.
It's the kind of message Hudak was more than happy to associate himself with.
"What Rob demonstrated when he won the mayoral race is to be clear where you stand," Hudak said prior to the start of the campaign.
"People are tired of paying more and more in taxes, and seeing the kind of waste we saw at city hall, and that we're seeing here in the province of Ontario."
Hudak's platform promises tax cuts and an end to "wasteful" government spending.
However, as the debate over potentially deep program and service cuts at city hall grows increasingly strident, tapping into the "Ford Nation" for support may prove to be the Tory leader's biggest weakness.
"(Ford) sold a fantasy: that you can reduce your taxes and you don't impact services," said Peter Landry, once chief of staff to a Liberal cabinet minister and now a consultant.
"It's starting to come home to roost for him."
On Monday, Hudak seemed distinctly uncomfortable as reporters pressed him on the Ford factor. Hudak repeatedly refused to use the F-word.
Instead, he responded by attacking McGuinty.
"I don't think it's the role of the premier of the province to lecture my mom, a senior citizen, as to what time she should do the laundry," he said in reference to time-of-use power costs.
Finally, after a half-dozen tries, he relented — slightly.
"I know that Mayor Ford and council are going through recommendations by the city manager," Hudak said.
"So the question is how the province can be of assistance."
Gleeful Liberals have made no bones of invoking Ford as a Hudak bogeyman.
Think what Ford's approach would mean for Ontario is a message frequently heard — or at least implied — from Liberal quarters.
"If Mayor Ford goes down the path of severe and significant cuts, that certainly would hurt Mr. Hudak," says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of political science at Ryerson University.
Polls suggest Ford's strong approval ratings have been slipping.
He and his councillor brother Doug Ford have been pilloried over potential cuts to libraries and over dismissive comments about renowned author Margaret Atwood.
Disquiet over other potential losses to services or programs is also getting louder.
Hundreds of people lined up at city hall to speak against the cuts and some previously supportive councillors are changing their tune.
"Having a bunch of people screaming and yelling at council until 2:30 in the morning is not representative of the Greater Toronto Area," said Ipsos Reid pollster John Wright.
Lydia Miljan, who teaches political science at the University of Windsor, said voters across the country have been taking a fresh look at Conservative messages on wasteful government spending.
Voters have also become less fearful of suggestions the Conservatives have a "hidden agenda" — something to which they are susceptible, she said.
Some analysts said the very fact of Ford's election stands to benefit the Conservatives by at least giving them hope they can break through into the 416-area.
It wasn't so long ago, Toronto was essentially a dead zone for Tories at all levels.
Ford and the federal Conservatives under Harper have shown that to be the case no longer.
But, come Oct. 6, Ford Nation may prove to be Hudak's downfall.