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Hard-to-pin-down Hudak makes a slippery target for Liberals

Tim Hudak is a moving target. And Dalton McGuinty's Liberals are running out of time to catch him.

As Michael Ignatieff could attest, a great danger for an opposition leader heading into his first election is being introduced by the government before he can introduce himself. But after two years leading Ontario's Progressive Conservatives, and now ahead in the polls, Mr. Hudak is still getting to write his own story - up to and including his platform launch this past weekend.

Save for some ham-handed TV spots by the union-backed (and Liberal-friendly) Working Families Coalition, there have been none of the early attack ads many observers expected. And the Liberals' broadsides, through press releases and talking points and Twitter posts, have been unfocused to the point of being contradictory - at various points labelling Mr. Hudak nostalgic for his time in Mike Harris's government 15 years ago and a "reckless rookie, "a man with no plan, except for the sinister secret plan he keeps to himself.

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When Liberal MPP and campaign co-chair Greg Sorbara assembled journalists on Monday morning to unveil a new ad, it seemed likely it would put forward a different version of Mr. Hudak from the one presented at the Tories' weekend convention. Instead, the ad turned out to be a feel-good spot in which Mr. McGuinty extols the wonders of Ontarians "working together," with nary a mention of the PC Leader.

The ad is meant to start drawing a contrast between the Premier's determined optimism and Mr. Hudak's alleged cynicism. But to Ontarians only starting to pay attention to the PC Leader, it doesn't do much to shape impressions.

"We think the best person to frame Tim Hudak is Tim Hudak," Mr. Sorbara says, pointing at the alleged holes in the Tories' platform and the doubts they'll raise among voters.

It strains credulity that the Liberals will remain so high-minded through the campaign, however much it may be a welcome reprieve from what voters have come to expect. At the least, Working Families will be heard from again. And likely, the party will directly launch some attack ads.

But first, the Liberals will need to figure out what they're attacking. And what could easily be Mr. Hudak's biggest vulnerability - the difficulty of figuring out who he is and what he stands for - seems to have confounded the people who could exploit it.

The most successful political attacks cut to an opponent's core. The branding of Mr. Ignatieff as someone who had come back to Canada out of an arrogant sense of entitlement was nasty, and probably an exaggeration, but rang true enough to help form voters' impressions. The same could be said, further back, of the Liberals' labelling of Stockwell Day as a conservative ideologue. And Mr. McGuinty, despite his later success, was very believably labelled "not up to the job" in his first election as leader.

Cutting to the core of Mr. Hudak, as any journalist who has tried to profile him could attest, is a different matter.

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An admirer would call Mr. Hudak nimble; a critic would call him slippery. He moves comfortably from moderation to hard-line conservatism; from folksy charm to slick salesmanship; from jocular to cerebral.

His platform reflects this persona. It mixes populism, in the form of tax breaks and chain gangs and welfare crackdowns, with an embrace of the current government's centre-left fiscal framework. It wavers between thoughtful and simplistic. And it has just enough surprises - including no mention of issues that Mr. Hudak had previously expressed interest in, such as gas-price relief - to throw off some of the assumptions his critics had made. All told, it's rather difficult to get a handle on.

Given the premium voters tend to place on sincerity, that would seem the likely grounds on which to go after him. And to some extent, the Liberals are now arguing that he's offered less a plan for governing than a smattering of promises aimed solely at getting elected.

But still, their criticisms are all over the map. Mr. Hudak is not just "slick," but also "dark" and "angry." Despite being too "pessimistic," he's also promising Ontarians too much.

Liberal strategists insist everything is going according to plan; that they have a multipronged communications strategy; that they're just as nimble as their rivals. No two campaigns are the same, they argue, and theirs is designed for this one.

Maybe so. And maybe, regardless of what the Liberals say, Ontarians will decide they don't like what they see from Mr. Hudak.

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But he is nothing if not elusive. And to date, it looks like he's escaped his opponents' grasp.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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