For a while there, it looked like the Conservatives might actually catch a few breaks this week in their campaign to staunch the flow of public opinion away from them and into the Liberal pond.
With Dalton McGuinty's Grits surging ahead in the polls, Ernie Eves and his Tory troops needed all the help they could get, and they found it from an unlikely source: Joseph Carnevale, the disgruntled Liberal chairman of the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
In an open letter to pretty much anyone interested, Carnevale claimed senior Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella attempted to "coerce me into silence" after Carnevale said McGuinty's promise to cap class sizes at 20 students from junior kindergarten through Grade 3 was a bunch of very expensive bunk.
"I was told to rip up my Liberal membership card and accused of making the cost of this plan an issue in the on-going provincial campaign," the school board chair said in his Tuesday missive.
"Apparently I am only a good Liberal when I attack the other parties and I shouldn't speak up about real issues in their platform."
Kinsella refuted Carnevale's allegations, said he'd talk to his lawyer, and hasn't been heard from since. But the Tories immediately seized upon the tempest as proof the Grits are not the open and inclusive political organization they claim to be. On the campaign trail, Eves held out the internal Liberal squabble as evidence that McGuinty doesn't have clue one about education and can't be trusted to follow through on his promises.
The Liberal leader didn't help his cause much. In an echo of Eves' first days on the trail, he couldn't tell reporters exactly how much a Liberal government would spend on education during its first four years in office.
That latter slip would have been ironic, but for the fact that the Liberals are acting more and more like the incumbents in this battle. Their campaign mantra may be all about change but, when it comes to policy announcements, it's the Tories who are taking chances with hot-button policies such as banning teachers' strikes.
McGuinty, on the other hand, is coming across as the politician trying to protect his power base by avoiding positions that might polarize voters. While such a strategy might protect the Liberals from widespread criticism, it hardly makes them look progressive - especially when dissention from within their own ranks is slapped down by the likes of spinmeisters like Kinsella.
By the next day of the campaign, however, none of this seemed to matter much. On Wednesday morning, George Smitherman, Grit MPP for Toronto Centre-Rosedale, took his spot in front of the television cameras to raise the ante in this high-stakes political poker game. "I'll see your open letter on Liberal education policy and raise you a leaked memo on Tory attempts to muzzle civil servants who might be called to give evidence at a judicial inquiry into the province's handling of the SARS crisis," was the essence of what Smitherman had to say.
The memo - issued by the Ministry of Community, Family and Children's Services -- instructed staff to inform their supervisors if contacted by Justice Archie Campbell's commission investigating the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Lawyers for the commission said the edict had the potential to interfere with the inquiry and demanded it be withdrawn immediately. And it was.
Eves was just as quick to disassociate his government from the memo. He blamed bureaucrats for the brouhaha and encouraged all civil servants to cooperate with the commission. But that didn't stop McGuinty from pounding the Tories over the head. "I find it incredible and very disturbing that the Eves government is now planting itself firmly in the way of the commissioner in terms of getting his job done," he said. "That is very, very disturbing."
More disturbing, no doubt, than revelations that same day that a doctor running as Liberal candidate in the Bramalea-Gore-Malton-Springdale riding northwest of Toronto was found guilty in 1993 of professional misconduct by the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons. Grit party president Greg Sorbara said the Liberals investigated the reprimand and were satisfied that Dr. Kuldip Kular made amends for his infraction.
"We were aware the Tories would probably use this against him in the campaign," Sorbara said. "It is regrettable."
The same could possibly be said of the next day's disclosure, that the Conservative candidate in the Toronto riding of York West was disbarred 10 years ago by the Law Society of Upper Canada after more than $600,000 went missing from client trust and investment accounts. The news had no sooner broken than Tory hopeful Mario Giangioppo "stepped aside" and was replaced by another party stalwart.
"It's too bad the previous candidate did not share that information with us earlier," Eves said.
Meanwhile, shared information being the theme of the day, the Conservatives were busy circulating rumours that McGuinty had cut a deal with Prime Minister Jean Chretien to delay federal legislation on same-sex marriage until after the election so the controversial issue wouldn't trip up the provincial Liberals. "Dalton's approach is to make a secret deal with the prime minister to take the heat off himself to protect his own special interests," Eves said. The message was clear: McGuinty is in cahoots with the federal Grits; if his party forms the next government, Ottawa will start dictating what happens here.
For his part, McGuinty stuck to his own script for several days, inadvertently giving credence to the theory by dancing around suggestions of a secret deal with Chretien.
"The prime minister and I spoke about a number of issues, including same-sex marriages," he said on several occasions without providing details. Late Thursday -- supposedly with Chretien's blessings - McGuinty finally spilled the beans on their "confidential" conversation. "Was there any deal? No, there was not," he said. "Not now. Not ever."
Give them points for discipline. But other than demonstrate a steely willingness to stay on message, what exactly did the Liberals accomplish with those two days of political dodge ball?
Once again, it hardly mattered. The crisis passed, just like the rain clouds sent scurrying across the province by Hurricane Isabel. The sun didn't come out for the Liberals, but Canadian Idol Ryan Malcolm did - turns out he's a big McGuinty fan. Go figure.