“Mulcair is everyone’s target. Here’s how he plans to win.” (Maclean’s)

Thomas Mulcair. (Photograph by Cole Garside)


Mulcair is learning that higher hopes bring bigger obstacles. The NDP leader has become his opponents’ target much earlier than Layton ever did. Partly because there is more of the old-time backroom pol and less of the leprechaun in Mulcair than in Layton, his opponents were quick to get over any reticence in their attacks. Day after day, Trudeau has been deriding Mulcair as a man who would let the needy twist in the wind. Harper has ordered up a suite of ads that decry Mulcair’s supposed addiction to “reckless spending.” Having sought the policy middle and the centre of attention, he has arrived only to find himself surrounded.

Taking questions from reporters at Thomson’s headquarters, Mulcair was asked about Trudeau’s plan. For once some anger flashed. “I’m tired of watching governments put that debt on the backs of future generations,” he said. “Stephen Harper’s approach has always been, ‘live for today, let tomorrow take care of itself.’ Well, at some point, you have to start having different priorities.” The Liberals don’t, he said.

How could Mulcair balance the books while spending more in some areas? By spending less elsewhere, he said. Harper “subsidized oil companies to the tune of billions of dollars. We won’t do that. He spent a billion dollars fighting First Nations,” in court cases over resource projects. “We won’t do that. He’s spent a billion dollars on the Senate. We would try and make sure that Canadians never spend another penny on that.” Big applause for that last line. Shuttering the Senate would require the unanimous consent of all provincial legislatures, so it might be some time before Mulcair could get that job done. Maybe never. Never, for my money, is a good bet. But the sentiment was popular with this room.

Ontario matters in this race because it’s home to 121 ridings, one more than Quebec and British Columbia combined. But also because all three of the traditional big parties are competitive here, so there are close fights in dozens of ridings. It was three-way splits that accounted for much of the Conservatives’ success in 2011. They won many of their 73 Ontario seats because New Democrats and Liberals divided the larger anti-Conservative vote. To win again the Conservatives must hold many of those seats. To end the Harper era, Liberals and New Democrats must take them. Other campaigns have been won in the air as leaders bounced from province to province seeking advantage. This one will be fought to a great extent on buses, in the 905 area code around Toronto and in southern Ontario.

The NDP remains in the lead nationwide, but it has seen a dip in support in the past two weeks that must unnerve its supporters, especially in Ontario, according to a new Abacus Data poll released this week. The NDP’s national level of support is down four points to 31 per cent, edging out the Conservatives at 30 per cent and the Liberals at 29 per cent. In Ontario, the NDP has lost six points to 26 per cent, putting them in third place behind the Conservatives at 33 per cent and the Liberals at 34 per cent.

But the NDP has formidable strengths. In the year and a half since January 2014, the proportion of the population who would consider voting NDP, regardless of whom they support right now, has grown six points to 62 per cent, Abacus found. This potential vote has shrunk for the Liberals during the same period, from 60 per cent to 55 per cent, and for the Conservatives, from 45 per cent to 42 per cent. This suggests the Conservatives, in particular, have very little room to grow beyond their current support.

And the more Canadians get to know Mulcair, the more they seem to like him. In exclusive polling for Maclean’s, Abacus found that Mulcair has overtaken Harper on a range of questions designed to test respondents’ attitudes toward leaders. In January a plurality of voters thought Harper, of the three big party leaders, would be best to negotiate a contract on their behalf; advise respondents on how to invest their money; and have good ideas for children about their future. Mulcair has gained on Harper on all those questions, overtaking him as a hypothetical contract negotiator and child career counsellor. (By a wide margin, respondents still believe Trudeau would be best if they needed a political leader to cook a meal or pick a movie to watch.) […]

In recent days all three party leaders have been buzzing around Ontario, and the Green party’s Elizabeth May was preparing to leave her British Columbia redoubt to join the Ontario fray. Mulcair was born in Ottawa but has made his career in Quebec. Through long experience, beginning when he ran to succeed Jack Layton after his predecessor’s shocking death four years ago, he has become familiar with Ontario, a province many Quebecers know only vaguely and, as neighbours often do, through a haze of preconceptions. […]

It is churlish to deny any political leader the belief that they are doing the right thing. They all do, and the challenge each faces is that they are under fire from the rest, and that this dispute is being litigated with particular intensity in the cafés and community halls of the country’s biggest province. Six more weeks of this lie ahead. Whoever wins, if any of them even captures enough seats to make a credible claim of victory, will have fought hard to earn it.

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