It was no coincidence that the man the Ontario Liberals dispatched to respond to the attack ads directed at their leader by embattled Conservative forces happened to be the party's deputy whip, George Smitherman.
"They're a real laugh," the MPP for Toronto Centre-Rosedale mused this week when the Tories unveiled their media assault on Dalton McGuinty. Those ads characterized the Grit boss as an arrogant political weakling who "still isn't up to the job" of premier because he doesn't understand the wants and needs of provincial voters.
"They're silly and they're cynical," Smitherman said of TV spots that started appearing Tuesday. "They're depending on the government refusing to talk about its own record and, frankly, about its plan."
It must have been extremely difficult for Smitherman to be so restrained. He's earned himself quite the reputation in the past four years as the Liberal opposition's own attack dog, a politician who goes straight for the jugular and holds on tight.
When Smitherman noted that "our ads will feature Dalton McGuinty talking about positive change for Ontario," he sounded almost disappointed. This is a guy who goes into hockey games with elbows high, in search of an unprotected nose or chin, when he plays with an all-party team of provincial parliamentarians known as the "Legiskaters." A contender for most gentlemanly player Smitherman is not.
Now, it's no secret that the Liberals have attacks ads of their own in the can for future use if some political roughhousing is deemed to be necessary before the Oct. 2 election. But, at this stage in the campaign, Smitherman and his colleagues are wise to keep them in reserve because it would seem the Tories have played right into their hands. True, the Grits did receive some mild criticism for waiting until the day after Eves and Co. let loose their airwave assault to go public with McGuinty's televised entreaty for the electorate to "choose the high road, choose change." But in light of subsequent developments on the campaign trail, waiting to see what the Conservative did turned out to be the right approach.
Never mind that going negative just a week into the 28-day battle smacked of Tory desperation and suggested the party brain trust considers average Ontario voters a bunch of unsophisticated dolts. The next day's media revelations that the government had failed to act on warnings from its own bureaucracy that the province's meat inspection system was past its best-before date and "unsustainable" dovetailed quite nicely with the Liberal ads.
"I won't raise your taxes, but I won't cut them either," McGuinty promises during the 30-second spots. "Our schools and hospitals need that money desperately."
So, it would seem, does the meat inspection system that allowed questionable beef to be processed an Aylmer packing plant. Same again for water inspections in Walkerton and a plethora of other public safeguards that Tories have been accused to shortchanging in order to fund tax cuts the same tax cuts their ads assail the Liberal leader for opposing.
In what could turn out to be a defining moment in the campaign, McGuinty showed up at a downtown Toronto hotel Thursday to sign a pledge drafted by the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation that committed the Grits to standing by the Taxpayer Protection and Balanced Budget Act, which was passed by the Conservatives when Mike Harris was still premier.
"I, Dalton McGuinty, promise that if my party is elected as the next government, I will not raise taxes or implement any new taxes without the explicit consent of Ontario voters," the Liberal leader vowed.
Eves was quick to go on the attack, dismissing the pledge as a sign of his opponent's "absolute audacity and hypocrisy.
"Dalton, you can say it, but they won't believe it," the premier said during a campaign stop in Ancaster Thursday night.
But John Williamson, Ontario director of the National Taxpayers Federation, was prepared to take the Liberal leader at his word. And he said it was his belief that the Liberal financial platform "is a responsible plan.
"Whereas Dalton McGuinty is taking a risk by putting all his numbers out there, Ernie Eves is taking a gamble by not putting enough in the window," Williamson said.
That remark was no doubt a reference to the Tory leader's inability earlier in the week to put a price tag on his party's campaign promises a platform the Liberals insist will be almost double the $5.9-billion they'll collect by cancelling planned corporate tax cuts, tax credits for parents with children in private schools and other Conservative vote-buying gambits.
"The exact price tag? I couldn't tell you off the top of my head," Eves said when the issue was raised by reporters. But he insisted it wasn't the $10.3-billion the Liberals claim and then proceeded to attack McGuinty for leaving the province's doors open to "war criminals, would-be terrorists and other bad people" with his opposition to a Tory proposal for a made-in-Ontario immigration policy.
But before that allegation had a chance to sink in, the Conservative campaign was rocked by revelations one of its backers in the Nipissing riding once held by Mike Harris had offered a Green Party candidate there big money for his election bid in hopes of improving a weak Tory incumbent's chances against a strong Liberal challenger.
Eves denied any party involvement in the plot, but the damage was done.
The way things are going so far, Smitherman may never get a chance to drop his gloves and engage in some political fisticuffs. Eves and his Tories seem to be doing a fine job of beating up on themselves.