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I have a soft spot for Kathleen Wynne. I like Christy Clark and Rachel Notley, too. I don't like all their policies, to put it mildly. But in the nasty game of politics, they stand out as smart, tenacious and decent. They are great examples of how to succeed – no gender quotas required.

But nothing lasts forever. Christy Clark will be gone Tuesday. Ms. Notley will be gone soon if the two conservative parties in Alberta can get their act together. Here in Ontario, Ms. Wynne is about as popular as a case of poison ivy. The conventional wisdom is that the Conservatives could run a three-legged dog next June and win.

The conventional wisdom is currently being revised. A surprising new poll, released two weeks ago, shows the Liberals have reversed the slide. They're almost tied with the Conservatives in public support – 27 per cent to 30 per cent, respectively.

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"If you're the Tories, you should be afraid," pollster Greg Lyle told me. "The Liberals are back in the running."

Back in the running is admittedly a matter of perspective. Ms. Wynne is still unpopular, just slightly less than she used to be. Yet Ontario is still a Liberal-by-default province. As Mr. Lyle, the president of Innovative Research Group, puts it: "A lot of people think it's time for a change, but they also want the Liberals back."

The Liberals' re-election strategy is simple: Turn left and pander shamelessly. It's easy to buy votes when the public purse is bottomless. The Liberal cornucopia of goodies includes a 25-per-cent rollback in residential hydro rates, free pharmacare until the age of 25, free tuition for more students, rent controls, a foreign-buyers tax on Toronto-area real estate, a minimum-wage hike to $15 an hour and a guaranteed-income experiment that will hand people $17,000 a year. They've bribed the civil servants and the teachers' unions. And they still have nearly 11 months to go.

Never mind that some of these policies (rent controls, $15 minimum wage) will hurt more people than they'll help. On top of that, Ontario's personal tax rate is among the highest in the country (a whopping 53.5 per cent on income over $220,000). Its provincial debt would choke a horse. Ontario spends more servicing the debt ($11.6-billion this year) than it does on postsecondary education ($8.4-billion). But so what? The budget is balanced. And they can count. The Liberals know there are far more renters than people who make $220,000 or more.

Which brings us to the competition. It's hard to see how the NDP can outbid the Liberals. The real fight will be with the Conservatives, led by new guy Patrick Brown. Mr. Brown is much better than a three-legged dog. He's also much, much better than the previous guy, who had the last election in the bag until he stupidly announced that he planned to fire 100,000 civil servants.

Mr. Brown, a young career politician who enjoys running marathons, is diligent, hard-working and determined to avoid the trap of so-con politics. He marched in the Pride Parade. He is good at recruiting candidates and raising money. His chief of staff and his campaign manager are smart and experienced. He's working hard at wooing voters in the New Canadian suburbs around Greater Toronto, because the election will largely turn on them. But most voters in the province still have no idea who he is.

"The single biggest factor is the 53 per cent of voters who don't know Brown yet," Mr. Lyle says. Mr. Brown's biggest opportunity is among middle-class strivers who don't approve of handing people $17,000 to do nothing. Even lower-income earners don't like it – after all, they work their butts off to make scarcely more than that. He also needs to stay away from anything that smacks of middle-class entitlements cuts. He needs to project optimism and craft a message about creating opportunity.

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In Ontario, the Liberals have been in power so long that the youngest voters can't remember when they weren't. What saved them from defeat was a leadership change and a fresh face at the top. A lot of people think they'll need another one to win again. But Ms. Wynne is not a quitter. She's in full control of the party, and insiders say she has no intention of taking a long walk in the snow. The economy is strong. The unemployment rate is low. Voters' memories are short – or so she hopes – especially when the sun is shining. Can she pull it off? Don't rule it out.

Video: Ontario leaders on challenges they face before election year (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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