Oct. 11, 2003
 
Jim Coyle  
Rosie Dimanno  
Joe Fiorito  
Christopher Hume  
Michele Landsberg  
Royson James  
Barbara Hall's coronation looks less likely

ROYSON JAMES

Toronto isn't about to hand the mayor's chair to Barbara Hall. She'll have to earn it.

That's the clear conclusion to be drawn from today's Toronto Star/EKOS poll, which shows Hall's support among committed voters plummeting. David Miller and John Tory, once trailing far behind, are now nipping at her heels in a three-way contest.

After cruising through 10 uninspiring months, looking to win by default and failing to show a passion for the job, except to say she cares deeply about the city, the fight for the mayor's office is coming to her.

The poll results, accurate to within 6.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, set up the delicious possibility of a thrilling finish to a marathon race that started in January, with Hall way out in front on name recognition.

She had been a one-term mayor of the former city of Toronto, prior to amalgamation, and lost to Mel Lastman in 1997 as mayor of the new city.

Hall's opponents have been saying her support among Toronto voters was a mile wide and an inch deep meaning that too much of her support was based on name recognition or some cursory knowledge of the candidate.

Apply a little heat, offer some substantive alternatives and bring the intense scrutiny of the last weeks of a campaign and she would collapse, they've maintained.

We're not there yet, but Hall's lead, once near 30 points, is now down to 7 points over Miller and 13 points over Tory not nearly as insurmountable as first thought. At one time, she had more support than all her main rivals combined. Now, she's in a tussle to stay on top.

"My sense of things is she's stumbling and her campaign is worried about it," an ebullient Miller said yesterday, ending a productive week of campaigning that peaked with the backing of media star Robert Kennedy Jr., of U.S. fame.

The poll results change the dynamics of the race and set up a stirring month of campaigning as three substantial candidates with considerable backing and money battle it out for the mayor's office.

Consider that nearly half of the voters have not made up their minds with only a month to go. That cannot be good news for Hall. Voters know what they are going to get with Hall and many are obviously looking for something different.

The poll results reflect the general feeling that John Nunziata's campaign has faltered badly and that Tom Jakobek is being all but ignored.

Can either Tory or Miller catch Hall, and which is better positioned?

The irony is that the two challengers need each other.

Tory needs Miller to keep pulling the left-wing vote away from Hall. As long as Miller has a chance at victory, the union vote, labour vote, environmental vote, the anti-island airport vote will stay with the city councillor and not leak away to Hall, a one-time NDPer who has drifted toward the political centre.

The fewer left-wing votes Hall gets, the more difficult it will be for her to run away from the pack. What Tory wants is a strong Miller showing, while staying within striking distance so he can run up the middle by election day.

For similar reasons, Miller needs Tory.

The right-wing and right-centre vote is unlikely to move all the way from Tory to Miller, the NDPer. Rather, if Tory's campaign were to collapse or lose steam, it is Hall who would benefit. Miller's best-case scenario is a fragmented right-wing vote, even as the left-centre votes coalesce around him.

Hall is precariously poised, looking over both shoulders. She's always steeled herself for a final battle against Tory, while trying to dismiss Miller as an irritant. Now, she's being outflanked on the left as well as the right.

As one Miller backer said yesterday, "Any support Miller gets will be from Barbara. And to some extent, Barbara will leak support to Tory as well."

But Miller and Tory also face dangers.

As Miller becomes more of a viable, visible candidate, voters will start to focus on his politics, his affinity and connection to unions. His opposing stance on the island airport alone will not win the day. And his positions on fiscal issues, the city's biggest problem, may not be particularly attractive for moderate Toronto.

What Tory needs more than anything is the total collapse of support for John Nunziata and Tom Jakobek. Jakobek (5 per cent) is co-operating nicely; his support continues to fall with each new revelation at the Toronto computer-leasing inquiry.

Nunziata has morphed into an Alliance party kind of guy, a position that does not resonate with a large enough group of Torontonians to allow him to win the race. Still, he currently has enough voter support (12 per cent) to possibly spoil it for Tory, a kinder, gentler, more thoughtful Nunziata.

What's gone wrong with the Hall campaign?

Well, like a basketball team with a 20-point lead in the middle of the third quarter, she's lost her sharpness, her edge, her stride. Getting it back, and quickly, is crucial so she can stop the bleeding.

While Miller was bringing in Robert Kennedy Jr., a move that boosted his profile just as the Star poll was being conducted Wednesday and Thursday, Hall was on the defensive, fending off strong Tory media ads.

Hall's campaign team has oodles of money to purchase ads and implement other campaign strategy. She's been watching others spend their money, keeping her powder dry in case she needs to overwhelm them with a late push.

That time might come sooner than later. Another poll confirming today's result and the full-blown war will be on.

A media advertising battle is not Plan A for the Hall team. Organizers were planning to open offices across the entire city, six in all, to capture the suburban vote.

They would then concentrate on getting the vote out on election day always a key strategy to victory.

Hall has a highly organized team and may be best suited to deliver on Nov. 10.

But if momentum brings a wave of support to Miller or Tory, she might not be able to stem the tide.

Over the next two weeks, three televised debates will bring the candidates into people's living rooms. Torontonians will see the candidates for themselves, warts and all.

It promises to be fun. Finally.


Royson James usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Email: [email protected].

Additional articles by Royson James





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