POLITICS
02/10/2012 11:15 EST | Updated 04/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Ontario Tories gather to vote on Hudak's leadership, elect executive

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. - Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak will face the music Saturday for a disappointing election campaign that many believed would see Ontario's Tories return to power after eight years in Opposition.

About 1,600 delegates gathered at the party's annual general meeting in Niagara Falls, Ont., will be voting on whether to keep Hudak as their leader or find a new one.

But with a minority parliament and the possibility of a snap election on the horizon, Hudak will likely survive the leadership review — a test the party's constitution requires of every leader who's lost an election.

After emerging from a caucus meeting Friday, Hudak pulled no punches in what went wrong during the Oct. 6 election campaign.

"I think that there's a fair criticism in that it's almost like I auditioned to be Opposition leader," he said.

"I told you what was wrong with the government and I got the job I auditioned for. And I'm going to work hard at it and do a good job each and every day. But I also want to be premier of this province because I believe we need to take a different path."

Voters and the party faithful will see a new Tim Hudak, he said, one who will talk more positively about the Tories' plan for Ontario's future, how they'll bring jobs back to the province and reduce the debt.

"They want to hear a Tim Hudak talking from the gut, talking from the heart about what I truly believe in," Hudak said.

"You've seen that, I think, in the legislature and you're going to see a lot of that tomorrow during my speech. Because I am worried where we're going."

During the campaign, they talked a lot about what Premier Dalton McGuinty was doing wrong, he said. Perhaps too much.

"I didn't tell you enough about what Tim Hudak and the PCs are going to do right," he said. "And the big focus of this convention is that positive Conservative alternative that's going to fix the jobs crisis and fix the debt crisis."

What shape that Conservative alternative will take may also depend on who is elected Sunday to the job of party president.

The presidential race has been hotly contested, with three candidates vying for the job: former cabinet minister John Snobelen, party strategist Richard Ciano and former taxpayers' advocate Kevin Gaudet.

It's the first time the presidency has been contested since 1994, when former premier Mike Harris — a hero to the party's most devout conservatives — was on the ascent to power. And it's the first three-way race since the Second World War, Hudak said.

Posing with the three rivals in a show of unity, Hudak painted the competition as a sign of rejuvenation within the party. But behind the scenes, it also appears to be shaping up as a battle between the Harris-era establishment and a new guard that wants major changes.

Ciano, whose business partner Nick Kouvalis has been labelled as the brains behind Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's surge to power, said he sees it as more of a battle to wrest the party back from the advisers and strategists responsible for last fall's losing campaign.

They didn't listen to the people on the ground who were telling them that they were going in the wrong direction, and it cost them the election, he said.

"I have more caucus members supporting me than my two opponents combined," Ciano said. "So the 'Old Guard,' so to speak, you're really talking about the 2011 campaign team."

Mark Spiro, who chaired the fall campaign, and colleague Chad Rogers, who acted as campaign secretary, were absent at the convention.

Snobelen, a former Harris cabinet minister who is considered by some to be the "establishment" candidate, said he doesn't see it as an "old versus new" race.

All three candidates are looking for changes in the party to make it more professional and effective with the advent of social media and other ways of communicating with voters, he said.

"I think everyone's talking about a new direction for politics period, and for our party," he said. "The difference is in the experience level of the three different candidates and, I believe, in how they set the priorities of the party going forward."