09/23/2011 07:21 EDT | Updated 11/23/2011 05:12 EST

Can Ontario's Liberals Turn Their Campaign Around?

Heather Fraser (NDP): Who has a message that will motivate voters to go to the polls? Which party has a machine that can help deliver the vote? And which ridings have close races where the outcome really is decided by those who show up? If I were in the Liberal headquarters, I'd be worried.


With the kick-off to Ontario's 40th general election on Oct. 6, The Huffington Post Canada kicks off its coverage with lively, ongoing debates between three of the smartest and most plugged-in politicos in the province: John Duffy arguing for the McGuinty camp; Jason Lietaer (@jasonlietaer) in Hudak's corner; and Heather Fraser (@ottawafraser) duking it out for Horwath. Check in with every weekday for the freshest and best election coverage on the web.

Heather Fraser (NDP):

In the last provincial election just over half of eligible voters actually exercised their right to vote. Just 52.6 per cent. So when the parties are out campaigning in the final countdown to election day, the question of which voters will actually go out and vote is a big one.

Who has a message that will motivate voters to go to the polls? Which party has a machine that can help deliver the vote? And which ridings have close races where the outcome really is decided by those who show up?

If I were in the Liberal headquarters, I'd be worried. They can't credibly campaign on "change," and voters are not generally motivated to defend the status quo -- especially when the support is lukewarm. Whereas in NDP headquarters, there is reason to be optimistic. The message of positive change has caught on. Horwath is likable and has momentum and that drives voters to the polls. Ontarians know this is a three-way race and every vote maters.

In York South-Weston for example NDP sign crews literally can't get enough signs. Putting up signs on people's lawns, the neighbours are quick to clean out their supply. In Huron Bruce a Kincardine Newseditorial stated that "the NDP's Robertson dominated all candidates' debate." The ground is shifting. So will the NDP have the ground organization to pull of the close victories? My guess is yes.

And those are pick-up seats -- I won't even go into the organizational heft in strongholds like Toronto-Danforth where Peter Tabuns canvassed nearly every door BEFORE the election. No one can say he's taking voters for granted that's for sure.

My question to John is, when you won't even show up to debate the other leaders, when your campaign is negative, when you are borrowing ideas from the failed Ignatieff campaign -- what can you possibly do in the next couple of weeks to turn things around?

John Duffy (Liberal):

I guess since I don't really buy the premise that the Liberal campaign needs a turnaround, I don't have a brilliant strategy for effecting one.

I watched the debate this morning between Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath. Once again, I was struck by the degree of agreement between the two on their broad thrust and tone. Given that the two parties have always competed in Northern Ontario as much against each other as against the Liberals, perhaps the similarity shouldn't have surprised me, and opposition has a way of making parties sound the same.

Still, the manner in which Ms. Horwath is tracking Mr. Hudak is one of this campaign's most striking features. I'm just not sure how comfortable a lot of New Democrat voters will be with that.

The debate is on Tuesday. With only a week and a half to go, folks are going to start switching on. It's going to be very interesting to see how they react to these and other dynamics.

Jason Lietaer (PC):

We talked earlier this week about tour. It says a lot about any campaign and whether it is headed forward or backward. I've been struck by the cautious nature of the McGuinty caravan so far -- headed to seemingly safe seats where senior cabinet ministers reside. Tonight Mr. MrGuinty visits John Milloy in Kitchener. Earlier, he went to try to save Leona Dombrowsky. There's a pattern. Saving seats, not trying to pick up new ones.

All the while, he's avoided the one place he should have been -- Thunder Bay. He got a chuckle from me today, though. He told the Toronto Star that he couldn't make the Northern debate because of a "scheduling conflict" and that after he told the organizers they "didn't call him back." Why not just be a man about it? Does he really expect anyone to believe this "broken telephone" yarn? One problem with his little story -- all the media consortium and his opponents had been negotiating with his team for weeks. They know he's not telling the truth. A little thing, but in my experience it always comes back to haunt you.

As John points out, the main stage is Tuesday. That's the big show and I feel pretty good about the fact that Tim got a practice run today. Judging by the first time jitters I saw from Ms. Horwath, I think it'll probably do her some good too. Both new leaders will have to be at their best -- it's McGuinty's fourth debate and he always seems to do well.

A bit of a bombshell this afternoon from the TDSB. They've launched a new anti-bullying guide with the explicit instruction that parents are not to be informed or consulted on in-class discussions about sexuality and tolerance. Huh?

And, oh yeah, the classes are to start in JK. Haven't we seen this movie before? I honestly thought Mr. McGuinty would not bring this back so soon after he was forced to shelve his sex ed curriculum changes in the spring from parental outrage. The more things change, the more they stay the same...

John Duffy, political strategist for the Ontario Liberal election campaign, is also the founder of StrategyCorp and author of author of 'Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada.' Jason Lietaer, the Hudak campaign's communications director, is also the vice president of public affairs of Enterprise Canada. Heather Fraser, representing the NDP, is the director of communications for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.