The Ontario Liberals see the NDP as the greatest threat to their re-election chances, and are crafting a campaign strategy designed to drive down the left-wing party's vote and frame the ballot question as a choice between Premier Kathleen Wynne and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.
This is the Grits' secret playbook, discussed at a closed-door briefing of hundreds of party organizers two weekends ago, a blueprint for holding on to power in a crucial election that could come this spring. The Globe and Mail obtained a record of the briefing, which identifies NDP Leader Andrea Horwath as a formidable opponent and Mr. Hudak as a leader easily portrayed as a right-wing radical. The Liberals' own vulnerability, the briefing says: their spending scandals.
"Our challenge in the campaign are the New Democrats," campaign co-chair David Herle told the March 22 session at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto. "[They are] eroding our ability to beat Conservatives."
The Liberal game plan is virtually the mirror image of the NDP's – sources in that party say they hope to win by siphoning off soft Grit support – setting up a hard fight for left-leaning voters.
In the briefing, Mr. Herle told organizers that recent market research shows most Progressive Conservative supporters are solidly committed to their party, while there is far more fluidity among potential Liberal and NDP voters. Especially worrying to the Grits is the NDP's popular Ms. Horwath, whom Mr. Herle dubbed "a force to be reckoned with." Even in ridings where the NDP has no chance of winning, he said, Ms. Horwath's party could peel away enough Liberal supporters to allow PC candidates to win.
The Liberals will fight back, Mr. Herle said, characterizing the NDP as incompetent on economic matters and hostile toward business.
The first two weeks of the writ, in particular, will be a fight to determine the ballot question, and he warned organizers to brace for opposition attacks over the government's past scandals. In some cases, he said, the Liberals will simply have to concede they have made mistakes while in office and try to change the focus of the campaign.
The Grits' best play, Mr. Herle said, is to frame the debate around the issue of leadership, where they believe Ms. Wynne has an edge. They will sell her as authentic and likeable, and someone with big ideas – the new Ontario pension system and a major infrastructure-building plan, for instance. The ultimate goal, he said, is to set up a ballot question that paints Ms. Wynne as a job creator with an ambitious agenda against Mr. Hudak as a radical who will cut health care and education.
Mr. Herle declined to be interviewed, writing in an e-mail: "I don't believe in talking publicly about strategy, but I am looking forward to being part of a campaign that will highlight the strong, principled leadership of Kathleen Wynne and her plans for building a stronger future for Ontario."
Campaign director Patricia Sorbara, who co-hosted the session with Mr. Herle, did not respond to a request for comment.
The NDP appears ready for the fight. Two insiders said the party believes it can replicate the pattern of its by-election victories over the past year on a broader scale. In those races, Grit support slid in the first two weeks and the NDP and Tories fought it out to the finish. In a general election campaign, said one source, the NDP believes much of the Liberals' support will melt away early.
Much of the Tories' plan, one insider said, involves motivating supporters to get to the polls. In the last election, many simply stayed home. The PCs are planning a mighty ground war with sophisticated computer software to target voters and key demographics.
The Liberals will fight them on that front with such new tools as "poll-by-poll ID reports," Ms. Sorbara told the briefing. The ID reports are a database that ranks polls within each riding based on the number of previously identified Liberal supporters in them. When canvassing, local organizers must target each poll until they have identified as many supporters in it as the database shows. This will also allow campaign officials to centrally track the progress of individual organizers on the ground.
Also on the organizational side, Mr. Herle said the Grits are beating their fundraising targets every month. Ms. Sorbara, meanwhile, said much of the campaign infrastructure is already in place, and two organizers are already drawing up detailed plans for the first 10 days of the campaign. The party is still more than 40 candidates away from having a full slate nominated, she said.
And whether the election happens after this spring's budget or the government survives another year, Ms. Sorbara had a blunt message for party faithful. "Brace yourself," she said. "It's coming."