You could watch Tuesday night's leaders' debate with the sound turned down and still figure out the story line. Ernie Eves, tired and worn, already knows he's a goner. Dalton McGuinty, lucky enough to win the coveted middle position, has the cocky air of someone who has already been elected by the media hordes just waiting for the voters to rubber-stamp their decision. And then there's Howard Hampton, the outsider on the left of the screen, shouting to be heard. He has no chance of winning on October 2, but he still has the most to lose. There'll be no breakthrough for the NDP on E Day. In fact, party activists would be relieved to get 12 seats - three more than they had in the last legislature and a number that is by no means assured.
Hampton spent as much time during the debate going after McGuinty as he did Eves, a risky strategy considering the delicate sensitivities of the anti-Tory union and social justice activists offering strategic assistance to New Democrats - and to Grits.
Hampton confided to me last week when I interviewed him on his tour bus that he had watched the video from the 1999 leaders' debate and realized he was too intense. "TV magnifies. I have to lower the level a bit,' he said. In the end, he summoned old-style social democratic passion and delivered several sharp blows to the Libs, particularly over their Tory-lite financial calculations. Hampton's strategy is to address voters in the few ridings where the NDP has a chance of beating the Liberal tide. "You know where I stand,' he said in summary. "Vote for what you believe in.'
The exhortation may help counteract the Lib argument now being heard on thousands of doorsteps: why vote for a party that you know will lose when you can vote Liberal and have direct access to those in power?
There are glimmers of hope. In Toronto, party loyalists are focusing on one riding in particular with such anticipation that you'd think they were going to be the next government. Etobicoke North has been held by the NDP before, but not since the Rae era.
The Tory MPP there, John Hastings, has stepped down, and though the Lib, Dr. Shafiq Qaadri, is a second-time candidate, all eyes are on NDPer Kuldip Singh Sodhi, who's being buoyed by armies of union activists - public servants and teachers among them. On the ground, they're smelling victory.
OSSTF members worry most about what kind of education policy will emerge from a caucus that will probably include former school trustees and now Liberal candidates Kathleen Wynne and Donna Cansfield, who share a political brand and not much else. Wynne (see page 23) has often sparred with the conservative Cansfield on the school board over standardized testing and privatization.
To the east, in Oshawa, CUPE Ontario leader Sid Ryan looks set to knock off the Tory incumbent and restore the auto city to the NDP fold. The Canadian Auto Workers are putting a lot of muscle into the campaign. They like the NDP public auto insurance plan; if it makes driving cheaper, they reason, people will buy more new cars.
Under the question mark column, there's Irene Jones in Etobicoke-Lakeshore (a popular city councillor who may fall to the Liberal surge), Irene Mathyssen in London-Fanshawe, and Hamilton West, where retired prof Roy Adams is trying to step into the shoes of outgoing NDP incumbent Dave Christopherson, who's running to be mayor of Steel City.
Whichever way you do the math, it's pretty close. Thanks to Mike Harris, the number of seats required to be an official party is only eight. (The number was reduced after the last election to accommodate the NDP.) So they could drop one (they had nine in the last legislature) and still keep their status. But if they dip below eight, don't count on the Liberals to help them out.
Eight seats would probably be enough to keep Hampton in the leader's office, such is the state of the NDP's diminished expectations. In another party, languishing in the single digits would have led to a personnel change long ago. But of Hampton members say, "He works so hard,' and in the NDP that goes a long way.
This hardy endurance may pay off a week from now if the hockey player from the north wins enough seats to live to fight another day.