10/06/2011 11:04 EDT | Updated 12/06/2011 05:12 EST

Victory that seemed likely months ago slips thorough Tim Hudak's fingers

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. - Ontario's Progressive Conservatives saw victory slip through their fingers Thursday as the province decided against the change rookie leader Tim Hudak insisted was coming after eight years of Liberal rule.

A subdued, sparse group gathered at a convention centre in Niagara Falls to watch the disappointing results roll in, while Hudak stayed in a hotel room nearby with his family, including wife Deb Hutton and four-year-old daughter Miller.

With results still trickling in, the 43-year-old leader emerged with his wife to announce he'd conceded to his longtime rival.

Premier Dalton McGuinty may have won this round, but Ontario's voters have put him on a "much shorter leash," Hudak said.

"I know we may be disappointed in the overall outcome when it comes to the seat count, but we are not — and we will never be — disappointed in who or what we are and who we stand for: the proud PC party of Ontario," he said.

There's still lots to celebrate, Hudak added, with the Tories nearly matching the Liberals in the popular vote.

While the Tories also made significant gains in the legislature with about a dozen new seats, they fell far short of what seemed to be within easy grasp just a few months ago.

Even before the campaign began, Hudak seemed poised for the premier's office. Public opinion polls put the Tories well ahead of the Liberals, with voters hungry for change after two terms with McGuinty.

Hoping to harness that unrest, the Tories plastered the word "change" all over their campaign, from their Changebook platform to the tour buses.

But as the sun set on the 30-day campaign, the tide had turned, with polls suggesting the Tories had erased their lead and were now trailing the Liberals.

There were signs along the campaign trail that the Conservative campaign was running out of steam. Hudak ramped up his already packed schedule with up to eight stops a day, only to be greeted by a handful of supporters at a coffee shop in Madoc or a restaurant in Peterborough.

Hudak fared better at evening rallies, with hundreds showing up in Jarvis in southwestern Ontario and Brampton just outside Toronto. But in the final days of the campaign, he failed to attract the numbers that came out to see McGuinty, who was even mobbed one night by supporters as he checked into a Windsor hotel.

"Clearly they've done nothing right, or very little right," said Bryan Evans, a politics professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.

"They have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."

The Conservatives turned off many voters by resorting to negative campaigning and wedge issues, experts say.

Former premier Mike Harris successfully employed wedge tactics during the 1995 election by taking aim at employment equity programs and welfare recipients during one of the province's worst recessions, Evans said. But the strategy backfired for Hudak.

Over the summer, the Tories went after McGuinty with attack ads that branded him as "the Taxman" and made waves with a platform promise to force provincial inmates to perform 40 hours of manual labour a week — a pledge Tory insiders say scored well with voters.

Before the starters' pistol was fired on the provincial campaign, Hudak pounced on a Liberal promise to provide a tax credit for companies that hired new immigrants, calling it an affirmative action program for "foreign workers."

He dropped the phrase from his speeches by the end of the week amid accusations of xenophobia. A few weeks later, Hudak refused to condemn a campaign flyer that made inflammatory claims about sex education in schools, and that the Liberals branded as homophobic.

The divisive nature of Hudak's comments — from the attacks on foreign workers to the sex-ed flyer — weren't very helpful, said April Lindgren, a journalism professor at Ryerson.

"I think these things are fairly transparent to voters in general and weren't seen as being helpful or addressing the issues that people really care about, which right now seem to be jobs and the economy," she said.

Tory strategists deny wedge issues eroded Hudak's support.

"I don't buy it," said campaign spokesman Jason Lietaer.

"Overall we have a country that is choosing to stick with governments that it knows. If I've heard one phrase more than any other over the last week, it's 'the devil I know.'"

The Liberals turned those worries about economic uncertainty to their advantage, with McGuinty hammering home the message that now was not the time for change, Evans said.

"I think that message resonated broadly with a clear plurality of the electorate," he said. "And that caused an erosion primarily from the Conservatives back into the Liberal camp."

But it wasn't just the sudden concern about the economy or the wedge issues that hurt the Tories, said Lindgren.

Hudak ran a kind of hybrid campaign, making the same promises as the other parties on health-care funding and slaying the provincial deficit, for example.

So he wasn't different from the other parties in that sense," she said. "And then where he did try to differentiate himself, I'm not sure that people had the stomach for his tactics."

Hudak also didn't seem to connect with voters, said Henry Jacek, a political science professor at Hamilton's McMaster University.

"I joked with some Conservative staffers, I said, 'If I was running your campaign' — this was months and months ago — I said, 'I'd go out and buy a million buttons that would say, "I Like Tim,"' to promote the idea that he's likable," he said.

"I just don't think he was able to convince people that he was a likable person."

A Tory candidate in London, Cheryl Miller, even admitted publicly that voters weren't that fond of Hudak.

"I knock on doors and people say, 'I like you – but I don’t like your leader,' and that’s really been difficult for me," she told radio station CJBK.

Hudak often made campaign appearances with his wife and daughter by his side, and even spoke openly about Miller's health scare this summer during the televised leaders' debate.

But it may have come too late in the game, Jacek said.

"There's people, I think, when they saw that harsh advertising they said, 'Well, I don't like that advertising. It's nasty, it's harsh. Then the person who's putting out that advertising must be a nasty, harsh person.'"

In fact, the attack ads may have turned some voters towards the NDP, who made a point of staying out of the fray, he said.