OTTAWA - With support eroding and their campaign seemingly running out of steam, Ontario's Progressive Conservatives are dismissing suggestions that they're doggedly sticking to wedge issues as they fight to pull ahead of the governing Liberals in Thursday's election.
Leader Tim Hudak is standing by a controversial campaign flyer about sex education that some groups have branded as homophobic, stoking fears that parents will be kept in the dark about what their children are being taught in school.
Asked Tuesday whether he still supports the flyer, Hudak responded: "Of course."
"I think the only one who has explaining to do is Dalton McGuinty, who wants to bring in a sex-ed curriculum that would start in Grade 1 when kids are six years old," he said while visiting a restaurant in the premier's Ottawa-South riding.
"And then on top of that, he wants to keep these things hidden from moms and dads. I think that's wrong."
The flyer makes a number of inflammatory claims about Ontario's sex-ed curriculum, including teaching "cross-dressing for six-year-olds."
It appears to paraphrase from a 219-page curriculum resource guide for the 2011 school year that was updated by the Toronto District School Board, covering kindergarten through Grade 12.
It doesn't mention cross-dressing, but does recommend that girls and boys be encouraged to role-play opposite roles and to talk about why some toys are considered a "girl toy" or a "boy toy."
Last year, McGuinty withdrew a new sex-ed curriculum after some religious and conservative groups said they were uncomfortable with kids in Grade 3 being taught about same-sex families and sexual orientation.
It hasn't yet been re-introduced, but the Tories claim McGuinty is secretly plotting to bring in more controversial changes if he's re-elected Thursday.
A new poll released Tuesday evening suggests McGuinty has taken a solid lead into the home stretch of the campaign. The survey conducted for Global News, CFRB NewsTalk 1010 and the Ottawa Citizen shows the Liberals at 41 per cent support with the Tories at 31 per cent and the NDP at 25 per cent.
The poll, conducted by Ipsos Reid, surveyed 1,020 people by telephone between Sept. 20 and Oct. 3. It is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.
It's a shift from earlier polls that had the Liberals and the Tories neck-and-neck, suggesting Ontario could be headed for its first minority government in 26 years. It's also a far cry from surveys conducted over the past year, which put the Tories ahead by a healthy margin.
The Liberals have fired back at the Tories on the issue of the sex-ed flyer, saying it completely misrepresents the guidebook and the sex-ed curriculum, which hasn't changed since the Conservatives were in power.
They've accused Hudak of resorting to the same divisive tactics that he employed in the early days of the campaign, when he slammed a promised Liberal tax credit as an affirmative action program for "foreign workers."
"We try to talk about the things that families care about: affordability, lower taxes and safe streets," Tory campaign spokesman Jason Lietaer said in an email.
"Sometimes leadership means talking about tough issues and do so because they are important to families. Voters want to know where leaders stand."
The Tories have been flirting with wedge issues throughout their campaign, starting with their controversial promise to force provincial inmates to perform 40 hours of manual labour per week, said Bryan Evans, a politics professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.
Former Tory premier Mike Harris used wedge politics in his successful 1995 campaign by taking aim at people on welfare and employment equity programs during one of the province's worst recessions, he said. But it has backfired for Hudak, Evans says.
"It was kind of cheap and base politics that was aimed at dividing people rather than having a high-level, sophisticated, public debate," Evans said.
"I find that very troubling for someone who aspires to be premier."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it's another example of the kind of mudslinging that has turned voters off.
"I'm not surprised that people are reacting negatively towards that because it's sandbox politics," she said.
"It's that negative, nasty kind of politics that people are frankly quite tired of."
Hudak dropped the phrase "foreign workers" within the first week of his campaign, but is making no apologies for the sex-ed flyer with just two days to go until Thursday's vote.
The issue grew more heated at a political rally Monday night, when journalists travelling with the Hudak campaign tried to question a Tory candidate, Ben Shenouda, who had reportedly distributed the flyer in Brampton.
Shenouda was taken out the back door and some reporters complained they were pushed out of the way by Tory staff who blocked their path.
Hudak has ramped up his campaign over the last few days, adding more appearances to an already packed schedule that has the Tory leader criss-crossing the province in a final push for votes.
On Tuesday, Hudak resurrected McGuinty's broken promise not to raise taxes by signing his own pledge and challenging his rival to do the same.
But despite his best efforts and some high-profile help — including an endorsement from federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty — it doesn't appear to be making much of an impact.
Hudak's events have attracted smaller crowds than McGuinty's — about two dozen people showed up for the Tory leader's Tuesday morning event in Ottawa, while another 18 turned up in Madoc for his appearance at a Tim Hortons' coffee shop.
The Conservatives are sticking to wedge issues because their support is eroding, said Evans. They're trying to consolidate their conservative base, whose more moderate elements appear to be drifting over to the Liberals.
"What they're trying to do is mitigate that drift by employing wedge issues to consolidate the more hard-core conservative electorate out there," he said.
The Tories are rejecting those claims, saying there's no intricate political strategy at work and that they are just campaigning on issues they believe in.