10/05/2011 04:53 EDT | Updated 12/05/2011 05:12 EST

Ontario Election: McGuinty Liberals Showing Signs Of A Three-Peat


TORONTO - Ontario's opposition leaders spent their last day stumping frantically for last-minute votes but all signs indicate Thursday's election will result in a historic status quo for the governing Liberals.

Most analysts and polls said they expected Premier Dalton McGuinty to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and pull off the first Liberal "three-peat" in more than a century.

"We've seen a dramatic turn of events," said Jason Sykes, who teaches political science at Brock University.

The formal start of the campaign Sept. 7 saw the Progressive Conservatives under rookie leader Tim Hudak riding high in the polls.

With a cranky electorate angered by broken promises and seemingly bent on turfing the two-term Liberals, the prevailing wisdom was that Hudak needed only to measure the drapes in the premier's office.

It hasn't turned out that way.

"There was such an appetite for change that they squandered," Lydia Miljan, a political science professor at the University of Windsor, said of the Tories.

"It was theirs to lose and they lost it."

Observers said Hudak failed on two counts.

His attempt at pushing divisive, hot-button issues backfired badly among the more than eight million voters in Ontario, they said.

In the first week of the campaign, Hudak attacked a proposed Liberal tax credit for new Canadians as advantaging "foreign workers," opening him up to accusations of xenophobia.

In the last week, the Tories attacked the Toronto school board's sex-ed curriculum, sparking accusations he was homophobic.

"The turn to wedge issues made people uncomfortable," said Ryerson University's Bryan Evans.

More importantly, analysts said, Hudak appeared to have had little success in presenting himself as a credible alternative to McGuinty by articulating a clear, viable plan for disgruntled voters.

On Wednesday, Hudak was still railing against McGuinty at the site of a proposed gas plant. Construction was ongoing despite the Liberal leader's pledge to scrap the plant, Hudak said.

"This is a living, breathing example of a broken Dalton McGuinty promise," he said.

Polls also indicated the New Democrats would finally cast off the albatross that was Bob Rae — NDP premier from 1990 to 1995 — and return to their historical levels of support.

At best, however, rookie leader Andrea Horwath seemed likely to pull off an "orange squeeze" rather than the "orange crush" success of her popular federal counterpart Jack Layton, who died this summer.

"She's in that magical space where she doesn't do anything and everything goes right," said Peter Graefe, a political science professor at McMaster University.

"She's been able to rally that outsider anti-politics, upset-with-the-status-quo vote."

Horwath, who started as an unknown but impressed many with her smarts and verve, spent her final hectic campaign day buoyed by the NDP's fourth straight majority win Tuesday in Manitoba.

Still, observers said, she had failed to articulate a clear reason for Ontario's voters to get behind her.

The three party platforms all clustered around the fuzzy centre of the spectrum.

On key economic issues, both the Tories and New Democrats said they would keep the hated HST brought in by McGuinty. All proposed similar plans to slay the province's mounting deficit and debt dragon.

However, the Liberals appeared to have made the case during a sure-footed, disciplined campaign that the province needs McGuinty's experience at a time of economic instability.

"It worked very well for Harper federally," Evans said. "It appears to have worked for McGuinty provincially."

McGuinty, who had a relatively quiet day, kept up that approach on his final campaign stops.

Only the Liberals would have people's backs in the event of another economic downturn, he said.

Despite the polls, analysts said the outcome of Thursday's vote could still yield a surprise if the Tories and New Democrats manage to get their supporters into the ballot booth in large numbers.

In the 2007 election, a historic low of 52.1 per cent of eligible voters turned out, handing McGuinty a second straight majority.