The optics, and the odour, were not ideal.
On a mid-December morning, Tim Hudak found himself in a Southwestern Ontario fish-packing plant, talking about energy prices. In front of him was a scattering of local media. Behind him, grim-faced women stood in a pair of assembly lines – or disassembly lines – cleaning Lake Erie perch. The heads, guts and skins were plopping into large bins just a few feet behind the leader of the venerable Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.
It was a typical moment in the less-than-glamorous life of a provincial opposition politician. But when an opposition leader is hungry enough, it takes a lot to make him lose his appetite.
"The important thing is to make sure that you're out interacting with the public," Mr. Hudak said later, "… to hear directly from people what's on their minds in an unvarnished fashion. The challenge for premiers – and I think the current premier is suffering from this – is getting caught in the bubble."
Around the country, change is in the air. Premiers are exiting office, in most cases being forced from it, at a frenetic clip. Ontario's Dalton McGuinty, unlike British Columbia's Gordon Campbell or Alberta's Ed Stelmach, will fight another election. But the polls suggest Mr. Hudak has a better-than-even chance of winning in October, putting him at the forefront of a new wave of leaders grappling with the post-recession era.
Mr. Hudak would face a deficit that sits at $18.7-billion and a public health system growing in costs at an unsustainable rate. He would be responsible for overseeing a transition to a knowledge-based economy, and striking the right balance between sustainable and affordable energy. For an ambitious 43-year-old who's spent most of his adult life in politics, it would represent a telling test of his conservative ideals – and his ability to shed the attack-dog persona he once cultivated for a greater sense of gravitas.
"We all have roles to play," he said, reflecting on his early days at Queen's Park. "Every team is going to need those guys who throw elbows and dig in the corners. And I don't apologize for playing that role at the time – it gave me some skills. But now, as the captain of the team, I have to have a broader perspective."
But 18 months into his leadership, and just eight months from the provincial election, it remains unclear just how deep-seated his ideals are, and whether Mr. Hudak is prepared to stake his shot at office on them.
He knows he disagrees with the direction under the Liberals. He thinks government is too big, its tentacles too long. He believes in the talking points he spouts every day, about "hard-working families that play by the rules" not getting what they deserve. But while he came of political age as a foot soldier in Mike Harris's Common Sense Revolution, and counts the former premier as a mentor, Mr. Hudak is not much of a revolutionary himself.
On the couch of his Queen's Park office, he's asked to forecast what Ontario will look like in 2015 if he's been running it for four years. His response would make his old boss cringe. "I don't think it's tremendously different from the Ontario we have today," he said, adding some promises about making life more affordable and government more accountable.
He lacks Mr. Harris's zest for confrontation, his eagerness to tear things down. With friends on both sides of the aisle, he describes his "philosophy in office" as building "trusting relationships over the long term."
That moderation is at odds with his role as the true-blue conservative who reclaimed his party after a pair of disastrous elections with Red Tories at the helm. But then, Mr. Hudak is full of contradictions. He is a career politician who presents himself as a regular small-town sort taking on a government beholden to insiders. He is a smart, studious guy who reinvented himself as a frat boy because he thought it was what his party needed of him. He is an inherently pleasant person whose instinct, when the cameras go on, is to snarl.
He might yet emerge as the fresh face of a new sort of compassionate conservatism; just as easily, he could be dismissed by his opponents – and the electorate – as a shallow opportunist.
Surprised to find himself in the legislature at the age of 27, a beneficiary of Mr. Harris's 1995 sweep to office, he found a role as a young attack dog and later as a competent junior minister. But it was his friend John Baird, following a similar path, who was considered the ambitious one.
After the government fell in 2003, that changed. With more prominent small-c conservatives like Jim Flaherty and Mr. Baird heading for federal politics, and the moderate John Tory at the helm, Mr. Hudak became the standard-bearer for his party's right. That stature was reinforced by his marriage to Deb Hutton, Mr. Harris's former chief of staff.
By that point, he harboured leadership ambitions. But his timeline was accelerated when Mr. Tory's leadership collapsed after the 2007 election, and Mr. Hudak emerged as the frontrunner. Mr. Hudak did not stumble into the job, exactly. But neither did his path there do much to flesh out his priorities, beyond rejecting the Red Toryism of his predecessor.
To spend a day on the road with Mr. Hudak is to get a sense of why, beyond Ontarians' typical indifference between elections, he has yet to define himself. He refers to himself as a "problem solver," and there's something to that. In meetings with interest groups, he appears genuinely interested in wrapping his head around challenges. Rather than just egging on criticisms of the current government, he asks intelligent questions, working toward an understanding of what could be done differently.
But when he speaks to partisan audiences, there's no sign of what that learning adds up to. He opens by accusing Mr. McGuinty of wanting to teach sex education to six-year-olds, and allow cellphones in classrooms while banning chocolate milk – none of which is currently on the government's agenda. It's a prelude to a glib stump speech that hits only the easiest targets, making him look like a caricature of an opposition politician.
His boldest policy pledge (other than to build a new highway in the Niagara region) has been to eliminate Local Health Integration Networks, Mr. McGuinty's half-hearted attempt at health care regionalization. Otherwise, his promises – more "affordable" energy, less red tape, more front-line service and less wasteful bureaucracy – are things very few people would disagree with in principle.
There are strategists and public opinion experts who would tell Mr. Hudak that Ontarians are simply ready for a fresh face, after Mr. McGuinty's tumultuous second term. So his job is to present a reasonable alternative, and otherwise get out of the way while the Liberals defeat themselves.
If Mr. McGuinty runs a bad campaign, that could indeed be all it takes to win. But if Mr. Hudak's principles are as strong as his friends say, can he really be satisfied dodging all the harder questions?
Fiscal conservatives in Canada have watched with some admiration and envy what has recently happened in Britain, where David Cameron's Conservatives have undertaken sweeping austerity measures aimed at shrinking the size of government. Could Mr. Hudak be the one to give Ontario its David Cameron moment?
Unlike some other Canadian conservatives, Mr. Harris and Prime Minister Stephen Harper among them, he can't easily be cast by his opponents as mean-spirited. That natural affability, that disinclination to seek conflict for conflict's sake, could allow him to level with the public about tough choices – and to paint an optimistic picture of what they might lead to.
Mr. Cameron didn't just spring that sort of conversation on voters after he formed government. It was central to his campaign platform, a high-risk gambit that could just as easily have cost him the election.
Ontario may not need, or be able to withstand, quite so draconian an agenda. But does Mr. Hudak, who may well be more personally conservative that Mr. Cameron, have it in him to take anything approaching the same risk?
Like most politicians, he has a genuine belief that he's the best available person for the job he's seeking. Nobody who knows him personally questions his basic decency, nor his desire to serve. But at some level, it still comes down to the question of whether he sees an election win as a means or an end.
Of Mr. Hudak's hunger, there can be no doubt. But is he hungry only for power, or for what he would do with it?