TORONTO - Opposition Leader Tim Hudak made some frank admissions Wednesday about what went wrong for the Progressive Conservatives in last October's provincial election.
Hudak didn't mention the controversial "foreign workers" issue that dogged his campaign from the get-go, but did say that he would have done things differently.
The leader, who faces a leadership review next month, acknowledged that the Tories failed to talk about "the kind of positive change" that they want to bring to Ontario.
The party locked into a strategy last spring around pocketbook issues and weren't "nimble enough" to adjust when other issues — like the European debt crisis — emerged, he said.
"If I had the chance to do it again, absolutely I'd be more clear about the direction we want to go, talk more about the jobs crisis and debt crisis like I'm doing today — a lesson learned the hard way," he said.
The Tories gained 12 more seats after the Oct. 6 vote, but failed to break into seat-rich Toronto and fell far short of what seemed to be within easy grasp just a few months before the writ dropped.
Public opinion polls had put the Tories well ahead of the Liberals months before the election, with voters hungry for change after two terms with Premier Dalton McGuinty.
But some experts believe the Tories turned off many voters by resorting to negative campaigning and wedge issues.
Early on, 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 first week amid accusations of xenophobia, but it appeared to dog him for the rest of the 30-day campaign.
Experts say it may have damaged his party's chances in the ethnically diverse Greater Toronto Area.
Hudak will face the music on Feb. 10-12 when the party meets for its annual general meeting in Niagara Falls. Members will vote on Hudak's leadership and elect a new party president.
"I'm certainly feeling confident about where our party is heading under our leadership," said Hudak, adding that he's travelled the province talking to party "grassroots" about how they can win next time.
"You don't get a mulligan in this business."
In the meantime, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is helping to lift Tory spirits.
He stopped in Wednesday during a Tory caucus retreat at the legislature to give a pep talk to his provincial cousins about his experiences at Queen's Park and Ottawa, a Tory source said.
Baird, who was in town for a noon speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto, served in the cabinets of two former Tory premiers and was a vocal supporter of Hudak during his 2009 leadership bid.