Ont. parties already running for 2011 election, picking campaign heads

TORONTO - Ontario voters can expect a harder-edged election campaign in 2011 as the Progressive Conservatives organize their efforts to unseat the Liberals under the guidance of the man who led Tim Hudak's successful leadership bid, observers say.

TORONTO - Ontario voters can expect a harder-edged election campaign in 2011 as the Progressive Conservatives organize their efforts to unseat the Liberals under the guidance of the man who led Tim Hudak's successful leadership bid, observers say.

Hudak won a decisive victory to lead the party earlier this year with a campaign run by one of the party's most experienced political operatives, Mark Spiro.

Numerous party sources tell The Canadian Press that Hudak has decided to hold on tight to his lucky charm when it comes to running the next election campaign.

That suggests voters heading to the polls on Oct. 6, 2011 will see a much tougher stance on the hustings than the party took during the 2007 contest under John Tory's leadership. University of Toronto political science professor Graham White says the Liberals are more than prepared to respond in kind.

"The Hudak style that we saw in the leadership campaign, the Hudak style that we see in the current campaign against the HST is certainly give no quarter, endless very severe criticisms, good sound bites that last just a few seconds to get the message across," White said.

Dalton McGuinty has also chosen the tried and true to lead his next campaign in selecting Don Guy, his former chief of staff and now president of the public opinion research firm Pollara.

"Both of the campaign managers are very seasoned, experienced pros," White said. "It's going to be a very tough election.

"Guy ... is not just experienced but has proven himself as ... someone who understands the world is constantly changing and ... is prepared to adapt to what the other guy is doing."

Elliott Anderson, director of strategic planning for the Ontario NDP, says while the party has not named its campaign manager it is getting ready for the race.

"Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has, over the summer and fall, been working closely with party supporters from other provincial NDP sections where the party has been successful in the past, such as Manitoba and Nova Scotia, to cull ideas and develop strategy for the next election," Anderson said.

The fact that the governing and Opposition parties already have their campaign managers in place "may be a sign that, like in the United States, the permanent campaign is here to stay," said David Docherty, a politics expert at Wilfrid Laurier University.

"By next fall we may see the 2011 campaign begin in earnest."

Guy ran three campaigns for McGuinty. The first was a losing one in 1999, but he delivered two back-to-back majority governments for the Liberals later, sweeping the province in 2003 and 2007.

In the last contest, Guy's decision to pounce on the Tories' promise to extend public funding to all religious schools re-opened an old wound in the Conservative party that dated from Bill Davis' polarizing decision to extend full funding to Catholic schools to the end of high school in 1985. That policy helped end 42 years of Conservative rule in the province.

By focusing on religious schools funding in 2007, the Liberals took the support of many swing voters from Tory.

Spiro has been running campaigns for Conservative candidates for years before shaping Hudak's leadership win in June.

A 39-year-old consultant with Crestview Public Affairs in Ottawa, Spiro has a foot in both the federal and provincial Tory parties. But he has shied away from the limelight, preferring to work quietly in the background for 20 years.

Andrew Hodgson, former executive director of the Ontario Conservatives and who worked with Spiro on many campaigns, said the move by Hudak to choose Spiro will result in a "very modern campaign."

"He's up to speed on social networking, he's up to speed on (the) newest techniques, voter contact," Hodgson said.

It will also be "a campaign that understands all the voter groups and will be concentrating on a broader tent, a bigger tent... (to get) all kinds of folks, not just traditional Tories, voting for us," Hodgson added.

The day after his leadership win, Hudak noted that his grandparents, who immigrated from the former Czechoslovakia, always voted Liberal because they saw the Tories as the "boss's party."

Hudak vowed to change that perception, saying he wants to make the party the "natural home" of that next wave of new Canadians.

But Hudak could hit a roadblock in recruiting newcomers with his controversial promise to scrap the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and have discrimination cases heard in courts. Leadership rivals Christine Elliott and Frank Klees both warned that the policy would tank with voters, particularly ethnic minorities.

The campaigns in 2011 will undoubtedly have to explain to voters how they parties plan to deal with the record $25-billion deficit caused by stimulus spending to ease the effects of the recession.

While no one knows what the political environment will be 22 months from now, some observers can't help but notice similarities to the 1995 election that saw voters hand former premier Mike Harris a majority government.

Harris won after a serious recession in which many Ontario residents were jobless.

However, the incumbent New Democrats had been unpopular with the business sector throughout its term, something that hasn't seemed to plague McGuinty's Liberals.

Harris also played a key role in attracting support for Hudak in the leadership race, and Hudak's wife, Debbie Hutton, was a top aide to Harris when he was premier of Ontario. Many observers predict that under Hudak, the party will swing back to the neo-conservative Harris days.

Hudak's supporters, however, are quick to point out that Hudak is not Harris and will bring his own solutions.

The Niagara-era politician has said he'll focus on creating jobs and improving Ontario's troubled economy in the lead-up to the election, not social policy.

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