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Ontario Votes 2003

Main > Commentary > Was campaign over before it began?
Election Day: Oct. 2, 2003   

Was campaign over before it began?
by Don Wanagas - Oct. 3, 2003

Some folks figure Ernie Eves and his Tory forces lost the provincial election the day they launched their attack ads on the reptilian kitten eater from outer space and his interplanetary Liberal forces.

Other observers argue that Eves blew Ontario Vote 2003 when he couldn't lop off Darth McVader's head with the tax-cutting light sabre his troops tossed to him during the leaders debate 10 long days ago.

But there's also a entrail-reading school of thought that suggests the Conservatives had all but conceded defeat long before these two fateful events took place. They actually threw in the towel the minute a squad of Common Sense Revolutionaries from former premier Mike Harris' hit squad took command of the beleaguered government's re-election campaign and tried to turn the man who took over from their old boss into something he wasn't and never will be.

Eves admitted as much in the radio and television spots that were broadcast during the final week of the doomed electoral mission that ended with the Tories zapped out of power by Dalton McGuinty's Grits.

"Experience tells me what you believe matters," the soon-to-be ex-premier declared with all the sincerity he could muster under the circumstances he must have fully understood.

Eves was right, of course. Personal beliefs do count for a lot in politics. The problem was, during the month he spent on the hustings trying to convince everybody he was a different breed of leader than McGuinty, Eves also managed to come off as totally unbelievable because he was obviously uncomfortable with what he had to say.

No one will ever know if things would have ended differently had the outgoing premier been left to the devices that so recently won him the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. Clearly he'd convinced his own party to choose change long before the Liberals turned it into their winning campaign slogan. Surely the majority of Tories went along with his opposition to private school tax credits and bans on teachers' strikes and all the other things he proposed to do to create a kinder, gentler PC government. Otherwise, Jim Flaherty would have been premier these past 18 months and Eves would already be back banking.

So why, then, did the Tory campaign have Flaherty's boot prints all over it? Clearly because the Harrisites who ran his impressive leadership campaign convinced the party strategists that only they knew how to fight the good fight. That allowed the Liberals to fashion a battle plan that had at its heart many of the principles Eves had espoused in pursuit of the Tory party crown. It must have been hard for him to stand there during the debate and to hear his words coming out of McGuinty's mouth while he was left to recite dogma he had no intellectual connection to.

By the end, Eves didn't even pretend to have his heart in the script. And that's what made those ads in the dying days of Conservative campaign all the more poignant. "Experience tells me what you believe matters." It was like giving the eulogy before you know there's going to be a funeral.

Apparently it sent shivers down the spines of more than a few Tories. Many of them had undoubtedly been convinced that, given the choice between True Grit McGuinty and Eves dressed up in Liberal red, most voters would pick the genuine article. Perhaps. But at least that would have allowed for some measure of popularity growth. The tax-cuts/deductions/relief strategy that the Tories augmented with right wings shots at everything from same-sex marriage and capital punishment to immigration and crime control had no such hope of swaying votes. It was aimed at core Conservative voters who never seem to leave the Tories in any numbers regardless of what's been going on in the province politically.

It's as though Flaherty's supporters had this grand design to solidify their man's support in a manageable base that will allow him to rebuild the Conservative party in his own image from the ground up.

The frenzied victory celebrations at Flaherty's Whitby-Ajax campaign headquarters would have convinced any uninformed observer that a Tory government had been re-elected with a massive majority. And Flaherty delivered a fiery speech that smacked of personal triumph.

It was like he knew well ahead of time exactly what would happen. Like he knew Eves was finished before the election even began.



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