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The Globe and Mail

Horwath pins her hopes on galvanizing ground game

NDP candidate Paul Ferreira greets Leader Andrea Horwath at a campaign rally in the Toronto-area riding of York South-Weston on Sept. 7, 2011.

Anna Mehler Paperny/The Globe and Mail

It sounded more like a prelude to a gospel-themed professional wrestling event than a political pep rally. But the orange-clad, placard-wielding people crowding a Mount Dennis Legion gave it away.

"Brothers and sisters," Paul Ferreira bellowed as NDP leader Andrea Horwath entered to the sound of a thumping bass and stomping feet, "the next premier of Ontario!"

Mr. Ferreira knows this crowd, and the crowd knows him. So backed by a wall of Toronto-area candidates, it's easy for him to roil people into a frenzy of enthusiasm with booming prognostications about an "orange surge, creeping west and northward."

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Hours later in Hamilton, the scene is the same: a platform stage surrounded by chanting supporters, a leader led through the crushing crowd to the sound of stomping feet.

It's neither polished nor policy-heavy. But for now, it just needs to be galvanizing.

"I love being around people who love elections as much as I do," Ms. Horwath says, to further thundering.

Momentum from the NDP's surge in the May federal election, and goodwill in the wake of Jack Layton's death, are both a blessing and a burden for Ms. Horwath. In addition to giving her added push and popularity, they mean she's going into her first campaign as party leader with much more attention focused on her – and much more pressure to deliver in ridings the party took federally five months ago.

So far, Ms. Horwath is leaning on charismatic candidates in swing ridings to help get out the vote and get herself out there.

And the rookie NDP Leader is resting her bid for fence-sitting voters on her ability to resonate on so-called "pocketbook issues" – jobs, gas and heating, hospital wait times.

Her mantra of "affordable change" is hardly a message of blue-sky idealism. And the archetypes she calls up, in a stump speech replayed almost identically from one event to another on scrolling teleprompts, would fit just as easily in a "Joe the Plumber"-type spiel: Gary, a retiree, wrote to tell her the HST is going to push him and his wife out of their home; Kim, a single mom scrambling for child care; Marina, a woman with breast cancer whose nurse got laid off.

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In calling up those figures, she risks being called out for edging into not only Liberal territory, but populist political ground more often occupied by the Progressive Conservatives.

Asked as much in her maiden speech after formally starting the campaign, she didn't deny the similarity. She simply says it's a matter of trust (and repeats her emphasis on "everyday people" and "everyday families").

"They have to ask who they can trust to make the kinds of changes that put them first," she said. "When it comes to people making that choice on Oct. 6, they'll see that New Democrats are on their side."

So far she's only hinted at new policy announcements – a jobs-incentives program that would pay businesses to hire and train their workers, as well as maintaining new equipment; and infrastructure for public transit.

On Thursday, her first foray out of the GTA, she's poised to make announcements tailored to Northern Ontario. Her biggest challenge, she said after a rousing rally in her Hamilton hometown Wednesday, will be staying on track.

And while she has said repeatedly she'd rather be non-confrontational about the campaign, she said she'd relish the chance at more than one leaders' debate.

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"Bring 'em on."

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