Now you see them, now you don't.
Three failed leaders took the podium at the provincial leaders' debate tonight. Who of them will be back for a return engagement four years from now?
Certainly not Howard Hampton, running the same campaign with the same campaign director that has ended in disaster twice before. You would have thought the NDP braintrust would have figured out by now that the voters are not buying what they're selling.
Certainly, the party membership has. At campaign events, many NDPers pass the time during their leader's speech marvelling that Hampton remains at the helm and wondering who'll take over. Cheri De Novo? some suggest. But she smuggled acid into Canada in the pages of her Bible. Great! her defenders reply. At least people will talk about her.
Tonight, Hampton's low-volume emotive powers are dampened further by a bad cold. A viewer might conclude he would have liked to have called in sick. Unfortunate but apt symbolism for an NDP campaign that is less than a campaign but merely muddling through, waiting for better times.
In the middle, the premier who came to office with so many benefits -- a booming economy, a yearning among the people for visionary government, ineffective opposition -- but has squandered them to the point that victory is not assured and minority government a distinct possibility.
I watch the debate among Liberals, at a viewing party hosted by health minister George Smitherman at the Foxes Den pub near Bay and Charles. We see a premier fidget, fumble words and speak too quickly, not unlike a schoolboy caught out with his broken promises and trying to talk his way out of it.
There are five moments of applause in 90 minutes from this crowd so committed to the Liberal party that they'll give up their evenings and weekends to knock on doors and make calls to people who barely know there's an election going on. But even these die-hards don't really connect with their leader. Most of them are here not for the man on TV but for Smitherman, whose campaign literature makes scant mention of the premier, in 10-point type on the last page.
The line that gets the biggest bang here comes not from McGuinty but from the only man who can defeat him -- John Tory. The PC leader, listening to McGuinty blame NDP and Conservative governments for the many of the problems facing Ontario, opines that if the debate goes on long enough, McGuinty will be blaming Sir John A. MacDonald. "That is good," the Liberal behind me says.
Tory is from the wing of the party of progressives such as Bill Davis and Susan Fish, politicians who were able to build a machine that appealed to urban and rural with pro-government policies with wide voter appeal. Of the three men on stage tonight, Tory is the only one with the presence we expect of a premier. Speaking with poise and directness, he effectively indicts McGuinty on broken promises while positioning himself as competent and practical.
But there is something less than a vision coming from Tory. Rather than his predecessors in the most successful poltiical party the province has ever known, Tory has opted to appeal not to mainstream Ontario but to the right-wing base -- to the Christian evangelicals who want their own publicly funded religious schools and to members of the Ontario Medical Association still pining for private health care. Because his main planks are so unspeakable in polite company, Tory is reduced to offering minutiae such as electronic health records. He offers no grand plan.
Of the three, however, it is Tory who has the best night. Perhaps, despite himself, he will be premier, especially if the result on October 10 is minority governent and the NDP opts -- as more and more party members are suggestiing it should -- to back the PCs. That's now John Tory's best hope for deliverance from failure.