Politics has not been kind to Larry Grossman. Less than three years ago the 44-year-old Toronto lawyer came within 77 delegate votes of succeeding Progressive Conservative leader William Davis as premier of Ontario. Had he won that January, 1985, leadership convention, many observers think he might still be premier. Instead, he lost to Industry Minister Frank Miller—who promptly lost the government to Liberal Leader David Peterson. Grossman finally became Tory leader in November, 1985, after Miller’s resignation, but by then Peterson’s activist government was enjoying a surge of public approval that midway through the current provincial election campaign had not subsided. With Grossman’s party running a dismal third in opinion polls, many insiders predicted that the Tories, heirs to a dynasty that ruled Ontario for 42 years, were facing not only defeat— but humiliation.
But Grossman has shown no signs of despairing. The former Ontario treasurer and health minister has mounted a combative, issues-oriented campaign. And last week, in the first Ontario leaders’ debate in 10 years, he clearly outmatched a nervous, stumbling Peterson in front of an estimated 1.4 million television viewers. The outcome galvanized the Tories and enlivened what had been a somnolent summer campaign leading to a vote on Sept. 10.
Later in the week, as a cheerful Grossman arrived in Oakville, Ont., a young supporter waved a sign saying “You won the debate.” Declared the Tory leader: “Don’t you feel the momentum turning? It’s changing out there.” Liberal organizers, however, expressed confidence that they could retain their impressive lead—but only through hard work. Cautioned campaign chairman David McNaughton: “We have to guard against complacency. It’s our biggest challenge.”
Since Peterson called the election on July 31, opinion polls have consistently put the Liberals comfortably on top. And while the first post-debate survey-conducted for The Globe and Mail and released on Aug. 22—showed a surge in Tory support and a drop for the Liberals, it still indicated that the Liberals have a commanding lead and are headed for a majority, with Gross-
man’s party running third. The poll, by Environics Research Group Ltd. of Toronto, gave the Liberals 48 per cent of the decided vote, compared with 28 per cent for the New Democratic Party and 24 per cent for the Tories.
Political commentators maintain
that Peterson’s smooth personal style is part of the reason for the Liberals’ popularity. But they also blame the Tories, claiming that the party’s shift to the right under Miller in 1985 relinquished the essential centre of the political spectrum. Said George Perlin, author of The Tory Syndrome-. “Another party moved in on that ground and, unless there is a dramatic change,
may occupy it for a long time.”
Indeed, Grossman seemed to be struggling merely to hold the votes of traditionally Tory rural Ontario. To shore up support, he accused Peterson of planning to introduce official bilingualism in Ontario—a red flag to many
conservative voters. Grossman vowed that his party would never do so. But the remarks about bilingualism angered Tory candidates running in ridings with large numbers of francophone voters. And Grossman also drew criticism by insisting that he would cut taxes and balance the province’s budget, despite more than $8 billion in election undertakings. Said David
McFadden, past president of the Ontario Tories and incumbent MPP for the Toronto riding of Eglinton: “If I was at provincial headquarters, maybe I would be raising hell.”
Grossman silenced at least some critics with his aggressive performance in the leaders’ debate, repeatedly cornering Peterson with pointed questions about Liberal policies. In his most effective attack, he accused the premier of vacillating on the free trade talks between Canada and the United States. Peterson has said that he will support a free trade deal only if it protects Ontario industries and Canadian sovereignty. But Grossman, who supports the trade initiative, said that Peterson should make up his mind whether he is for or against it. “There are two trains leaving the station,” Grossman declared. “One is the train of U.S. protectionism, the other train is a freer trade train. You are simply wandering around the station frightened of making a choice.”
To build on Grossman’s debate success, the Tories launched an imaginative advertising campaign that will absorb almost half of their $2.4-million campaign budget. Its centrepiece: a series of 15-second advertisements that show Grossman telling voters where he stands on the key issues—education, free trade and the environment. In one commercial, he speaks candidly about the complacency of his own party during its last years of rule. In another, he admits that some of his positions will be unpopular. “People will disagree, but they won’t be unclear where I stand,” said Grossman.
Organizers concede that the Tory strategy is risky. But a clear position on the issues, they add, will help secure traditional supporters who may be wavering. “We don’t believe the electorate wants a ‘Hi, how are you?’ campaign that shows our leader eating hotdogs at a barbecue,” said Conservative campaign manager John Tory. Author Perlin said that the Tories had little choice in deciding on their approach. “The numbers that are left are obviously hard-core,” he said. “If the strategy is to maintain that vote, then
it is a smart one at this point.”
With its emphasis on issues, the Tory campaign stands in sharp contrast to the Liberal strategy. Capitalizing on Peterson’s charm, the Liberals have arranged dozens of community events and mainstreeting sessions at which Peterson has done everything from riding a bicycle built for two to performing a mock striptease.
The Liberals are trying to pick up votes among the urban middle class by portraying Peterson as a “man of the future.” The party’s well-oiled organization team has also benefited from months of election planning and fundraising. At 7:30 a.m. one day last week, 50 supporters turned out to greet the premier as he entered a radio station in Toronto for an interview.
The NDP, meanwhile, has based its campaign on its pledge to fight for ordinary working people. Citing individual cases to illustrate social injustices that the party seeks to correct, party leader Bob Rae performed smoothly during the leaders’ debate. A poll conducted by Angus Reid Associates Inc. and published by The Toronto Star the next day showed that 43 per cent of respondents said that Rae was the most effective of the three leaders. The NDP also hopes to benefit from the popularity of the federal party, which leads the Tories and the Liberals in opinion polls.
In their local campaigns, some Tory candidates have avoided referring to Grossman. McFadden, for one, has chosen to run a campaign based on his strength as an active MPP. “Voters can see my leader on the news; I am running for me,” he said. Others predicted that Grossman may be a transitional leader unless the party makes a respectable finish on Sept. 10. The threat to his leadership would grow if he loses his Toronto seat of St. Andrew-St. Patrick, where he faces a strong challenge from popular city councillor Ronald Kanter, a Liberal. Said Tory MPP Yuri Shymko, who is waging a battle against the NDP in his west Toronto riding of High ParkSwansea: “There’s no doubt that if we come out with 30 seats or less, I will be one of those demanding a leadership review.” Added Shymko: “The party has not recovered from two emotional leadership races. Our leader is associated with the previous regime.”
But Grossman said that he has given no thought to what will happen after the election. “I am happy with this campaign and it’s a long way from election day,” he said. “I am where I run best, from behind and on the issues.” Last week, it seemed, Grossman had a long way to run.
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