As the advertising blackout for the Ontario election ends, the campaign's most important two weeks begin. It's a period that will determine whether the province opts for Kathleen Wynne's interventionist economic policies and new pension plan, Tim Hudak's vision for much smaller and more hands-off government, or Andrea Horwath's pocketbook populism.
After the leaders' debate on June 3, only nine days before voters go to the polls, impressions will have hardened to the point where it will be difficult to make new ones. So the pressure is on Mr. Hudak to build off his momentum from the campaign's first leg, Ms. Wynne to rally the province's centre-left behind her, and Ms. Horwath to start being taken seriously as a potential premier.
In the days to come, those and other storylines will offer plenty of political drama.
Can Tim Hudak keep dominating the news cycle?
Since he promised to cut 100,000 jobs from the broader public service, and then to replace direct business supports with a huge corporate tax cut, the Progressive Conservative Leader has been the star of the show. It will get more challenging to stay in the spotlight, though, now that he's unveiled his full platform and has few surprises left.
Counterintuitively, both the Tories and Ms. Wynne's Liberals would seemingly be happy for this to be a referendum on Mr. Hudak's agenda – the former because they want to motivate their support base, and the latter because they want Liberal-NDP swing voters to rally behind them.
Can the NDP elbow its way into the fight?
Of the three major parties, Ms. Horwath's New Democrats should be the least pleased with how the first couple of weeks went. Partly because of her ill-defined agenda, the NDP Leader has struggled for attention. With all polls showing her party running third, she needs to quickly prove herself competitive to avoid suffering badly from strategic voting.
The NDP's hope is that it will catch fire in southwestern Ontario, where Ms. Horwath tends to play well, and momentum will spread from there. A platform launch, in the coming days, could help. On the other hand, as ads hit airwaves, the NDP could suffer for not having as deep pockets as the other parties.
Will we hear more about Liberal scandal than we have so far?
Considering how much the gas-plants debacle overshadowed everything else at Queen's Park in the months leading up to the campaign, Ms. Wynne must feel like she's dodged a bullet with the relatively heavy focus on platforms since the writ dropped.
Liberals are braced for more reminders of their baggage once the blackout lifts. With Mr. Hudak having lost some of his enthusiasm for scandal-mongering as he tries to strike a more optimistic and premier-like tone, that role may now fall to the New Democrats – who, based on a new ad arguing it's time to "put the Liberals in the penalty box," are ready to leap into it.
Will Working Families have the influence the Tories fear?
The PCs are convinced that, by spending millions of dollars on ads attacking them, a union group was largely responsible for their loss last election. So they're somewhat obsessed with what Working Families Coalition will do in the coming weeks – to the extent that they pre-emptively released an online ad accusing the group's leadership of being "male, pale and stale."
Sources have indicated that Working Families is indeed set for a major ad blitz, painting Mr. Hudak as untrustworthy. But it's possible that this time, unlike the last, he has defined himself before his opponents could.
What campaigns will different Ontarians see?
On Tuesday, the Liberals' campaign co-chairs told reporters they have 32 radio ads aimed at different regional markets. The Tories have promised an abundance of online advertising, which among other things allows messages to be tailored more narrowly toward targeted voters. The New Democrats, too, are promising lots of "data driven" ad buys that will often be "hyper-local" or micro-targeted to certain demographics or interests.
In short, Ontarians living in two different ridings – or two different neighbourhoods in the same riding, and in some cases even two different houses on the same street – may hear very different messages. To understand the mandate of whoever wins government will require paying attention to all of them.