The Ontario campaign begins today [Northern debate] – by Martine Regg Cohn (Toronto Star – September 24, 2011)

The Toronto Star, has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

Here’s something you may not have heard before: An Ontario election is underway. And it starts in earnest today.

Until now, the campaign has barely cracked the front pages. Since the writ was dropped 2 ½ weeks ago, almost nothing has happened — and yet everything has happened. Now, the race is being turned upside down.

The Forum poll published in today’s Star shows that as voters belatedly start to focus on the campaign, a longstanding Tory lead has dissolved. We’re headed for a photo finish — with the NDP holding the balance of power (but holding a lot less of it than many had thought).

For the next 12 days, brace yourself for one of the closest elections in recent Ontario history. And the possibility of regime change. The drama comes not merely from the horse race. It’s about who takes the reins of power after Oct. 6 and which direction they take us in the next day.

What happens next? A decisive chapter will be written Tuesday night when the three leaders walk into a TV studio for a province-wide debate that could determine whether Ontario is headed for minority government.

It will be the first (and only) prolonged exposure most voters get to Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. Opposition politicians tend to toil in obscurity between provincial elections, but they are about to be introduced to Ontarians. And tested.

In a dry run on Friday, they appeared side by side in a cavernous banquet hall at a motel near Thunder Bay’s airport. While past performance is no predictor of future conduct, the two-person debate showed how unforgiving the format can be — and revealing.

With Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty bizarrely boycotting this northern debate, the two opposition leaders politely played patty cake with one another while taking shots at the absent premier. McGuinty’s decision to snub the north has cost the Liberals dearly in negative press coverage locally.

As high-handed as his decision was, he is hardly an unknown commodity after two terms as premier and three previous election debates. The real suspense will be over how the opposition tag team of Hudak and Horwath performs.

In their warm-up debate here Friday, Hudak dominated from the start, in command of the facts and showing a mastery of sound bites to get his message out. Speaking without notes, he assumed a premier-like persona while behaving respectfully toward Horwath.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website:–cohn-the-ontario-campaign-begins-today?bn=1