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Election Day: Oct. 2, 2003   

Dalton McGuinty
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Dalton McGuinty

Dalton McGuinty hardly looked like the party's saviour when he became leader of the Ontario Liberals in 1996.

Indeed, the Ottawa MPP's ascension could hardly have been less auspicious: a compromise candidate who came fourth on the first ballot, he won a gruelling convention battle mainly by virtue of not being Toronto leadership hopeful (and marginal frontrunner) Gerard Kennedy.

It only got worse when he arrived at Queen's Park as leader of the Official Opposition.

Then-premier Mike Harris came across as alternately folksy and stiff, but he was positively vibrant compared to McGuinty, whose expressions ranged from "wooden" to "stricken." His charisma-free personality, combined with an unfortunate physical resemblance to Norman Bates (the deranged killer played by Anthony Perkins in the film Psycho), held little promise of drawing new supporters to the demoralized party after the drubbings handed it by the NDP and PCs in successive elections.

But McGuinty would prove nothing if not durable. Indeed, he did better than survive: despite a disastrous campaign in 1999 (in which Howard Hampton publicly made the Norman Bates comparison), the Liberals drew more of the popular vote than either the Tories or New Democrats and improved their standing in the legislature at the expense of both those parties.

Beyond durable, McGuinty also proved to be someone who learned from his mistakes. In the first campaign, McGuinty was woefully unprepared for a televised debate in which he was literally speechless when asked to defend a series of first-term gaffes. Reporters also recall that the Liberal leader appeared unfamiliar with his own party's platform just weeks before the election.

This time around, the Liberals came out early with policies of their own � some of which were promptly swiped by Harris's successor, Ernie Eves � and capitalized on Tory stumbles in the months leading up to the election.

That said, Eves posed a real threat to McGuinty during the premier's first year in office. Seeking to distance himself from the increasingly unpopular policies of the Harris years, Eves pushed his Tories away from their tough-love policies of the past with social spending and policy reversals that seemed lifted from the Liberal playbook.

Eves' abrupt about-face in May, with an election platform harking back to Harris's "common sense revolution," may end up becoming McGuinty's salvation. The Liberals, who'd been in a race for the centre against an incumbent government, were suddenly alone in the vote-rich middle of the political spectrum.

But there will be no salvation for McGuinty if he loses this election. The Liberals won't tolerate more than two losses by a leader in a province � and a party � with many successors in waiting.



Dalton McGuinty: A life in politics

July 15, 1955: Born in Ottawa. After studying biology at McMaster University and law at the University of Ottawa, McGuinty starts a law firm with his brother.

1987: Liberal candidate Dalton McGuinty Sr. elected to the Ontario Legislature as the member for Ottawa South.

1990: The elder McGuinty dies of a heart attack at age 64. Dalton Jr. wins the Ottawa South seat in a general election later that year.

1995: McGuinty re-elected in Ottawa South, but the Liberals under Lyn McLeod are soundly defeated by Mike Harris's Conservatives. Two months later, McLeod resigns as party leader.

December 1996: After placing fourth of seven on the first ballot, McGuinty slips past frontrunner Gerard Kennedy on the fifth ballot at the Liberal leadership convention.

June 1999: Liberals fail to topple Tories in a bruising general election. During the campaign, McGuinty refers to Tory premier Mike Harris as a "thug" and NDP leader Howard Hampton compares the Liberal leader to fictional killer Norman Bates.

Despite a disastrous performance in a TV debate, McGuinty is generally credited with improving the Liberals' share of popular vote (to 40 per cent) and seats in Legislature (up five to 35).

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