Leaders' debates are by definition perverse. Tuesday night's (June 3) was unfortunately no different.
We knew going in that NDP leader Andrea Horwath and the PCs' Tim Hudak would go balls-to-the-wall after Kathleen Wynne over the gas plants scandal. And they didn't disappoint.
Surprisingly, Wynne seemed to be unprepared for the barrage.
The good news for Wynne is that most people probably weren't watching, and most of those who were have already decided who they'll vote for. The bad news for Wynne is that after a record low turnout in the last provincial election, pundits are expecting an even lower turnout this time out.
Still, for the Liberal premier, this election looks like it could go down as one of the greatest escapes in Ontario political history - and one of the most paradoxical - if she manages the seemingly unimaginable and pulls off a win.
The paradox is that she'll have to do it by pumping the positive at a time of increased cynicism about government.
Since assuming the party's leadership a year and a half ago, Wynne's become famous for the "conversations" she's wanted to open with Ontarians and the opposition parties about the issues of the day, insisting that government can be a force for good. Yes, even while the Grits have been racked by gas plant skullduggery and questions of financial bungling at Ornge, eHealth and, most recently, MaRS.
Through it all, Wynne has kept her minority government afloat. Love her or not, her political appeal is undeniable. She may not be the most popular Ontario leader (Andrea Horwath is ahead in that category), but in the eyes of voters who participate in public opinion polls, she's consistently seen as the most able.
Her legislative agenda has included rollbacks on corporate tax cuts, a youth jobs strategy, and labour peace with teachers' unions.
Her personal standing with voters is significant, of course, but it's even more impressive because she happens to be an out lesbian. This may be 2014 and most voters could care less about sexual preference, but it's a subject that still comes up in socially conservative ethnic pockets of the GTA and beyond.
To see Wynne in action is to understand her appeal. Maybe it's the hands: she's constantly using them for emphasis when she talks. The idealistic activist who cut her teeth as a school board trustee and then fighting amalgamation in 1996 comes through. There's no denying her likeability, despite the criticism that she can come across as a know-it-all school marm.
Some of her political appeal no doubt arises from the contrast with the NDP's Horwath, who forced the election but has been unable to articulate a vision, judging by the party's flatlining support. But Liberal insiders have insisted all along that the election, whenever it came, would be Wynne's chance to shine, and most polls so far are bearing that out.
As we head into the final stretch, the Libs are neck-and-neck with the PCs in overall support but may in fact be flirting with a majority when you count most likely voters. The big contradictory metric in public opinion surveys? Three-quarters of voters say it's time for change. But who is the change candidate? An argument can be made for Wynne.
The answer for the Liberals has been to persuade voters that change for change's sake is a bad idea; their focus has been on the path ahead. That's understandable, since the one behind is arguably littered with roadkill. Hence the photo ops and campaign ads early on of the jogging enthusiast.
As political adverts go, those proved effective with focus groups even if the desired message didn't always resonate. Some who watched drew the opposite conclusion: that Wynne was trying to outrun the long shadow of her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, architect of the regime that involved the Libs in those multiple scandals.
In recent days, however, the Liberal campaign has taken on a more familiar tone. They're warning us again that electing a Tory premier like Tim Hudak would bring back the bad old days of Mike Harris and the turmoil that followed, when not a blade of grass in Queen's Park was left untrampled by protesters.
Earlier this week, the Liberals ramped up those attacks. Trade Minister Eric Hoskins accused the PCs of adopting slash-and-burn policies from "right-wing extremist radical elements" stateside. That after it came to light that Hudak had sought solace in the arms of arch-conservatives in the U.S. after his soul-destroying 2011 election loss. Uh, yeah. PCs since Mike Harris have drawn on the electoral experience of the Republicans.
As a campaign strategy, the ol' anti-Harris gambit comes off a bit desperate. Are the folks calling the shots in the Liberal backroom getting nervous about polls showing a PC surge? Some former McGuinty war room generals have noted that the crew behind Wynne doesn't collectively have the best record when it comes to winning elections.
But according to one Liberal insider, the Tea Party Tim attacks were designed simply to put the PC leader off-message. A day spent defending himself is a day he's not talking up his million-jobs plan.
The Libs' carefully crafted campaign aims not just to scare up the ghost of Mike Harris, but to play up the obvious holes in the Tory platform. Beyond the PCs' threat to cut 100,000 public sector jobs - an easy target that's dominated the discussion - there's Hudak's plan to scrap all-day kindergarten. Killing retrofit programs won't exactly help those in rural communities who want to get off the grid to lower those hydro bills either.
Anticipated PC gains in the 905 and southwest Ontario have yet to materialize, and those are crucial if the party's to have a chance of forming the government. While the Grits' pension plan is seen as an overture to NDP voters, it's also gotten traction among an unexpected set: older moderate Tories worried about their retirement prospects.
With only a handful of days left before the blackout on political advertising, Wynne's Libs are within striking distance. Who would have given them a chance a year ago?