By sometime around 10 o'clock Thursday night, NDP leader Andrea Horwath likely won't be the queen of Queen's Park. But it’s a distinct possibility she'll be in a position to say who'll be king.
After weeks of campaigning it has come down to that. Not one of the main parties can say they are confident they have attracted enough support to win a majority — 54 seats of the 107 up for grabs.
But, while not exactly the "orange crush" that emerged in the federal campaign, support has been growing for Horwath, proving what I said a week ago that debates do matter.
While the NDP leader didn't deliver a knockout punch to Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty or Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, she did create some interest in her party and its move to what former Tory premier Bill Davis once called the ''mushy middle."
Still, while NDP campaign insiders tell me they expect to at least double their current 10 seats, this will not be a repeat of the 1990 election when then-New Democrat Bob Rae — who wanted to be premier in the worst way and got his wish — moved the NDP to first.
But 20-plus seats will be a solid base for Horwath to build on. And a minority government situation makes her the most sought-after MPP at the legislature, just as it was 26 years ago for Rae when he and Liberal Leader David Peterson pooled their numbers and ideas to derail 42 years of Conservative rule in this province.
For the Tories this election was theirs to lose. They led the Liberals at one point late in the summer by 20 points.
But their campaign platform and Hudak's "back to basics" style of politics — heavy on tax cuts and law and order — seemed only to capture people's attention for a while, allowing McGuinty and Horwath to narrow the gap and turn the election into a horse race.
There was also a lukewarm response to Hudak, even among Tories. When a campaign stop in Toronto — where the Tories must win seats — only draws 25 or 30 people to see the leader, it’s a sign of trouble. The same kind of thing happened in the 2003 campaign to former premier Ernie Eves, and he lost.
A hill to climb for Tories
Tory insiders are aware they've got a huge hill to climb to get from their 25 seats to minority or majority status. Publicly, they remain confident. But the mood's less buoyant away from the cameras and microphones, a change that occurred in the past couple of weeks, even with a solid first time performance in the leaders debate by Hudak.
McGuinty began the campaign from behind. Not popular among voters and even in his own party, senior Liberals whispered privately that they believed his "best before date" had expired.
But McGuinty seemed re-invigorated by the Tory attack on his plan to offer tax incentives to companies hiring new Canadians, who Hudak initially called "foreign workers."
McGuinty went after Hudak in the very same way he unloaded on former PC leader John Tory in the 2007 election and his promise to extend government funding to all religious schools.
Then, in the leaders debate, McGuinty was, at the very least, steady in getting out his message — that everything's not sweetness and light in this province and that voters may not want to consider the alternatives at a time when the economy is a question mark and health-care transfers of federal money to the province will soon be up for negotiation with Stephen Harper.
Governance by wink and nudge?
Still, as strong as that argument and others may have been, McGuinty may not have moved his numbers into majority territory.
And that leaves Ontario facing the prospect of its first minority government in 25 years and a written commitment from the Liberal leader not to negotiate any deals or accords with Horwath or anyone.
But to stay in his second-floor corner office at Queen's Park, McGuinty will likely have to accommodate someone, somehow, if he has the most seats when the votes are counted.
It may not be in writing. But even a wink or nudge or a phone call to Horwath will provide political survival. It's the kind of approach that was adopted by Davis in the mid- and late-70s when dealing with Stephen Lewis, the NDP leader.
Lewis, for example, wanted rent controls. Davis wanted to remain premier at the helm of two minority governments. So Ontario got rent controls and by 1981 Davis got his coveted majority back.
Could it all be, as Yankee great Yogi Berra once observed, "déjà vu all over again?"
We'll know in a day's time.