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Ontarians turning against McGuinty, poll finds

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is seen during a speech in Oakville, Ont., on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011.

Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press/Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

If Dalton McGuinty truly is Premier Dad, Ontario voters are turning against him in a wave of teenage-like rebellion, rendering him a liability for local Liberal candidates in the coming fall election, a new poll has found.

The poll by Nanos Research, which was released Monday, found that more Ontarians believe Mr. McGuinty will have a negative impact on the election chances of their local Liberal candidate than he will have a positive effect -- a stark change for the face and patriarch of Ontario's Liberal party for nearly eight years.

"Usually people would say the leader has coattails. In this particular case, Dalton McGuinty doesn't have coattails. He doesn't even have a coat," said pollster Nik Nanos.

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The poll of 506 Ontarians, which was conducted over four days in late January and early February, also found that only 23 per cent of voters believe that Mr. McGuinty would make the best premier, positioning him nine percentage points behind Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak. Positive perceptions of Mr. Hudak, who became leader of the provincial Tories almost a year and a half ago, have soared in the past year, according to the poll. This time last year, only 17 per cent of Ontarians considered him to be the best candidate for premier; now, 32 per cent believe he is the best choice, the poll found.

The one plus side for the provincial Liberals, Mr. Nanos said, is that they remain in a near statistical dead-heat with the provincial Tories despite unease with Mr. McGuinty.

"If you're looking at numbers like this, Liberals are going to say our party brand is still relatively strong and competitive, but our leader is weak," Mr. Nanos said.

Experts attributed the drop in Mr. McGuinty's support to a number of factors. Like many incumbents before him, Mr. McGuinty has been bludgeoned by the same anti-tax, pro-small government movement that recently swept Toronto mayor Rob Ford to power, said political scientist David Docherty, a professor at Wilfird Laurier University. But there are some issues specific to Mr. McGuinty's team that have also particularly hurt his image, Mr. Docherty said, especially the exodus of high-profile cabinet members.

It wasn't long ago that Mr. McGuinty was surrounded by household names like former ministers Michael Bryant, George Smitherman and Greg Sorbara, the former finance minister who is still a sitting MP but has asked, for personal reasons, to remain on the backbench. That has left Mr. McGuinty as the focal point for voter unrest, Mr. Docherty said.

"When he had a stronger cabinet, it was easier to spread the blame and build up the Liberal name," Mr. Docherty said.

Jane Almeida, a spokeswoman for Mr. McGuinty, declined to comment on the specific findings of the poll. "Ontario has been through a difficult recession and now the economy is getting back on track. We're not going to be distracted by polls. We'll keep focused on creating more jobs and improving our schools and hospitals."

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Mr. McGuinty's fortunes are not irreversible, said Mr. Docherty, explaining that Mr. Hudak has effectively framed the current political discussion around populist, pocketbook issues: the Harmonized Sales Tax, higher energy bills and, most recently, an increase in beer prices that the Tory leader also blamed on the premier.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Hudak said the Tory leader was not available for comment before The Globe's deadline.

If Mr. McGuinty can remind voters about his big picture priorities and accomplishments in areas such as education, it could halt Mr. Hudak's momentum, Mr. Docherty said.

"He needs to come out with something that's bold and new and keeping with the trajectory in education: whether it's smaller classes in the senior levels of secondary, whether it's post secondary, he needs an initiative where people say, 'Yes, this is a government that thinks strongly about education,'" Mr. Docherty said.

"If this election is about the HST and leadership, he's in trouble."

The Nanos poll is considered accurate plus or minus 4.4. percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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National reporter

Greg has been a reporter with The Globe since 2005. He has probed a wide variety of topics, including police malfeasance, corruption and international corporate bribery. He was written extensively about the Airbus affair, offshore tax evasion and, most recently, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his criminal ties. More

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