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Even though she'll lose this race, Kathleen Wynne keeps running

On so many levels, this is simply not how the Liberals envisioned things would be at this stage in the campaign.

The Ontario Liberal leader shows unflagging energy on the campaign trail despite what the polls say

On the morning of the final televised leader's debate, Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne ran a five-kilometre race at Wilket Creek Park in Toronto and finished first in her age category. (Marta Iwanek/The Canadian Press)

It's a grey dawn outside Queen's Park, and the members of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne's tour team are already on an emergency conference call dealing with a problem. The charter plane that is to take the Liberals and the media to Ottawa has a mechanical issue.

On so many levels, this is just not how the Liberals envisioned things would be.

If they truly had a shot at winning, the Liberals would not at this stage in the campaign be making a trip that includes three ridings that went solidly red in the last four elections. They won Ottawa-Orleans by more than 11,000 votes in 2014. Glengarry-Prescott-Russell has been a Liberal seat for the last 37 years. Kingston and the Islands stayed Liberal even when the Mike Harris PCs won.

Wynne's team will not admit it publicly, but her campaign is showing all the signs of becoming a save-the-furniture tour. The Liberals are facing the stark reality that they will be hard pressed to win the eight seats they need to maintain official party status.

'It's a stunningly selfless act,' says her campaign co-chair David Herle on Power & Politics. 7:38

If they win fewer than seven seats, it will be the worst election showing for the Liberal party in Ontario's history.

Wynne and partner Jane Rounthwaite shop for cheese as she makes a campaign stop in St. Albert, Ont., on Thursday, May 31. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The plan: Fear of Ford

The Wynne campaign team had a plan. 

Led by seasoned strategist David Herle, with Deb Matthews and Tim Murphy as campaign co-chairs, the party aimed to turn the ballot question away from "Do you want to toss Kathleen Wynne out?" into "Do you really want Doug Ford running this province?"

They would chip away at the Progressive Conservative lead with effective attack ads to raise fears about Ford and what kind of premier he would be. This would get the Liberals close enough to the PCs in the polls so that Wynne could, in the final days of the campaign, appeal to NDP voters with a pitch that the only way to stop Ford is to vote Liberal. 

The plan has worked out perfectly — for the New Democrats. 

Wynne makes a campaign stop Thursday in the riding of Bay of Quinte, currently held by the PCs. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

'People are so decent'

The early morning conference call ends, and the highly competent Liberal tour team quickly pivots to a new way to get people to Ottawa. Seats are booked on a Porter Airlines flight. It means the current premier of Ontario gets treated just like everybody else at Toronto's Billy Bishop airport: She has to pass through security and show her driver's licence to the agent at the boarding gate. 

During an election, the people who attend campaign events are almost exclusively partisan. Wynne's unplanned appearance in the departure lounge provides a rare opportunity to see how a truly random selection of folks react to her. People spontaneously stop and greet her, smiling; several wish her good luck. There is none of the virulent antipathy you see for Wynne online.

"People are so decent and they want to make connection," Wynne tells me later in a one-on-one interview on her campaign bus. "They have challenges in their lives and they want to talk about them and they want somebody to hear them." 

The relatively warm reception Wynne gets when she meets people face-to-face has long given her and her team cause for optimism when her approval ratings were basement-level. They felt the spotlight of a campaign and the chance to contrast her with her opponents would make Ontarians see her differently, and she would win this election.

Even during open-forum town halls last winter, where attendees vented their spleens with complaints about her government, Wynne often won people's respect for listening and responding thoughtfully. Sometimes, she merely won grudging acceptance that she is not a villain. 

At a campaign stop in Orleans, Wynne calls the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration on Canadian steel 'ridiculous' and 'unwarranted.' (Mike Crawley/CBC)

'His bluster and his bullying'

Wynne arrives at a Francophone community centre in Orleans for her morning campaign event Thursday, just hours after the Trump administration announces Canadian steel will be hit with tariffs. It prompts one of her strongest performances on the campaign trail yet. It seems the U.S. president has lit a fire under the Ontario premier.

"I think that we've all had just about enough of Donald Trump," Wynne declares. "This is a president who rules by tweet. He doesn't seem to get that his bluster and his bullying are costing people real jobs, in his own country, in Canada and in Ontario."

In our interview, Wynne says Trump's move "really just ratcheted up the whole election" for her. 

"When you talk about steel, that's Ontario. Ontario is the steel producer in this country." she says. "For this irrational, wrong-headed trade barrier to be put in place just infuriates me." 

What also infuriates her is the NDP leader's statement implying that Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hadn't done enough to stop the tariffs. 

"That is absolutely, categorically, not the case," Wynne says. "There is nothing more that we could do. In the run-up to this, we did everything in our power to make sure that exemption was put in place. To suggest that somehow we haven't worked hard enough, it's just not true." 

Wynne cannot be accused of failing to work hard enough on this election campaign. Thursday was a perfect example. She was out for a run shortly after 6 a.m. when she got word of the plane's mechanical problem. She was either on the phone or campaigning all day while travelling from the far eastern end of Ontario back to Toronto. By the time she arrived home, it was nearly 11 p.m.. The next morning, she was on the air with National Public Radio to talk about the steel tariffs shortly after 6 a.m.

Wynne puts in rivets at the MHI Canada Aerospace Inc., during a campaign stop in Mississauga. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

The tables are turned 

In the 2014 campaign, with four days to go before election day, the Liberals launched a full-court press to appeal to NDP voters on the basis of the polls, arguing that only Wynne was positioned to defeat the PCs, led by Tim Hudak .

"In a very real sense, a vote for Andrea Horwath is a vote for Tim Hudak," Wynne wrote in a newspaper ad.

"A split vote will only help Hudak's chances," said a Liberal TV spot. "Polls show only Kathleen Wynne can stop him now. Please consider voting for your local Liberal candidate."

On Thursday evening, I put to Wynne that Horwath will likely turn the tables and make that very same appeal for the NDP this time. 

"It'll be up to her what she does or doesn't say," Wynne declares. "This is a very different election. My job is to make sure that people understand exactly what it is they're voting for. The suggestion that somehow the Liberals and the NDP are exactly the same is just not the case."

Wynne poses with children from a French-language elementary school in St Albert. (Mike Crawley/CBC)
 

How does Wynne counter the argument that every vote for her will be a vote that helps put Doug Ford in the premier's office?

"We are working every day to get into the position that we can be that alternative. I know it's a hard climb and it's a short period of time," Wynne says. "We are making the case, and some of the things that Andrea Horwath is saying right now are very, very risky for our economy." 

Almost on cue, Horwath launched her direct appeal to Liberal voters the next morning. 

"It's becoming very apparent that the new premier is either going to be Mr. Ford or me," Horwath told a news conference Friday in Toronto. "To those who have voted Liberal in the past, I invite you to join us to stop Doug Ford." 

Kathleen Wynne is fighting a war on not just two fronts, but three — against the PCs, against the NDP and against the polls. 

Wynne serves poutine while making a campaign stop at St. Albert Cheese on Thursday, May 31. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Serving poutine, flipping burgers

The campaign bus leaves the Ottawa area and heads to a cheese co-op in St. Albert, a town in the riding of Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, where 59 per cent of voters have French as their mother tongue. It has sent a Liberal to Queen's Park in every election since 1981.

Wynne is the only one of the three main party leaders who speaks any French. She chats with a group of schoolkids who have formed three made-up political parties (les Castors, les Mélons d'eau, and les Respecteurs) and are set to have a debate next week, then a vote on June 7. She then heads for a tour of the cheese-making plant and serves poutine in the attached restaurant.

The Liberal campaign buses (one for Wynne and her team, one for the media) then swing back west for the long haul toward Toronto. The rain beats down. There are no visible signs of discontent among the Liberal team that travels with Wynne. Her own unflagging energy likely sets the tone.  

Still, how they keep so positive in the face of the polls remains a mystery. CBC's Ontario Poll Tracker put the Liberals at 19.1 per cent heading into the final weekend before the election.  The last time the Liberal party scored anywhere near that in a provincial election was nearly a century ago, in 1923, with 21.8 per cent of the popular vote.

Reporters (me included) ask Wynne about her poll numbers at almost every news conference she holds. I ask her if she gets tired of it.

"I just have to not let it get in the way of what I have to do, which is make sure that I fire up the troops and that I am supportive of everything that's going on on the ground."

Wynne barbecues at a campaign stop in Belleville, Ont., on Thursday. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

'How I've always done politics'

Wynne's final stop of the day is about firing up the troops. The skies are clear in Belleville for a barbecue, and upwards of 100 people gather outside the campaign office of her candidate in Bay of Quinte. The Liberals have attracted the popular mayor of Prince Edward County. Robert Quaiff, to run for them. He's up against a PC incumbent, Todd Smith.

Wynne dons an apron and flips burgers to serve the party volunteers and community members who've shown up. She gives an eight-minute off-the-cuff speech. One of the lines that draws applause is "Ontario is the best place in the world to live, I think we can all agree to that."  

Afterward, she engages in conversation after conversation. She keeps on chatting and listening, well after the buses were supposed to depart.

"That's where I feel most at home, actually talking to people about what's going on with their lives," Wynne says later. "It's how I've always done politics."

Wynne makes a transit announcement in Markham, Ont., on Wednesday, May 30. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

'Incoherent slogans'

This campaign began as a Ford vs. Wynne battle. Now Ford barely mentions Wynne at his events, targeting Horwath instead. Wynne in turn has put much more emphasis on targeting the NDP in the past week or two than attacking the PCs. The Liberals have tried to raise fears that the New Democrats can't manage the province's finances, would hobble the economy and would be far too cozy with the public sector unions.

None of it has succeeded in either preventing the NDP surge or stopping the Liberal slide.

As our interview wraps up, some 15 hours after beginning her day with a run, Wynne paints a stark picture of the prospect of a PC victory.

"I think it would be very bad for the people of this province," she says. "It could be very chaotic. If you listen to the incoherent slogans that Doug Ford puts out, there's no rational sort of thread that runs through them. There's no sense of how he would do any of the things that he said he would do."

Wynne boards her campaign bus Saturday afternoon, after conceding the Liberals will not win the election and that she will no longer be premier after Thursday. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

'I will no longer be Ontario's premier'

Fewer than 48 hours after our Thursday evening conversation, Wynne drops her biggest bombshell in the campaign: she admits the Liberals will not win this election.

"After Thursday I will no longer be Ontario's premier," Wynne says, making her extraordinary announcement at a Toronto playground. She then urges people to vote Liberal anyway, trying a kind of reverse psychology on a province that is in the midst of rejecting her and her party.

"By voting Liberal, you can keep the next government, Conservative or NDP, from acting too extremely one way or the other," Wynne says. "The more Liberal MPPs we send to Queen's Park on June 7, the less likely it becomes that either Doug Ford or the NDP will be able to form a majority government." 

It's a public admission of what was apparent to me on Thursday morning, that the Liberals only have a shot to win a handful of seats. It's an appeal for the party's very survival. The easy cliché is to call it a Hail Mary pass, but one that comes with the team down 35-0 and a few seconds left on the clock, in a last-gasp attempt merely to prevent the embarrassment of a shutout.   

Wynne chokes up when my CBC colleague Lorenda Reddekopp asks the simplest and best question of the news conference: How does it feel to have to say this? 

"It is hard, I'm not going to pretend it's not hard," said Wynne, her voice quivering. "For someone who's as competitive as I am, when I see that finish line, that just makes me go faster. So it's hard to say I know part of the outcome before I get to that finish line." 

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.