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Eves top pick to lead Tories: Poll
Witmer pegged as his biggest rival
Caroline Mallan
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Former Ontario finance minister Ernie Eves is the clear favourite to succeed Mike Harris as the next Conservative leader and Ontario premier, a new public opinion survey suggests.

Eves holds a wide lead over his nearest rival, Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer, and three other candidates in the leadership race, according to the Toronto Star poll, conducted last week by Ekos Research Associates Inc.

Eves was favoured by 25 per cent of the voters surveyed. Witmer was backed by 16 per cent, followed by Labour Minister Chris Stockwell at 8 per cent, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty at 7 per cent and Health Minister Tony Clement at 5 per cent.

A total of 39 per cent of voters remain undecided.

The poll surveyed 811 Ontarians between Feb. 11-13 and is considered accurate within 3 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

The poll is good news for Eves, who has tried to portray himself to Conservative party members who each have a vote in the March 23 leadership contest as the candidate who stands the best chance against Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty.

Ekos president Frank Graves said the results show Eves is the safest choice for the party right now, but he does not discount Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer's chances in the race.

"If they were in more trouble, the Witmer card is one they might look more seriously at playing," Graves said, adding that Witmer holds more appeal with the general electorate, while Eves has stronger support among older, more affluent committed Tories.

Witmer is also more popular among women and people who did not vote for the party under Harris in 1999, and Graves said she's "the only one within reach" of Eves. The Ekos poll shows Eves chosen over McGuinty, NDP Leader Howard Hampton, and his four Tory rivals when voters are asked which of them would be a "good" premier.

Forty per cent of respondents picked Eves to be a good premier for the province, a full 15 points ahead of McGuinty. "It's troubling for McGuinty at this stage," Graves said. "He's not doing as well as his party."

Witmer emerges as a strong Tory second, with almost as much support from the general electorate as McGuinty.

Despite a quiet campaign that some have described as a "sleeper hit," Witmer is picked as the best choice for premier by 24 per cent of respondents, just one point behind McGuinty with 25 per cent.

When asked which of the five leadership contenders general voters would like to see as the next head of the Conservative party, Eves remains in the lead, but by a narrower margin than just a month ago.

The poor showing by Flaherty comes after weeks of contentious policy announcements, including taking away the right to strike from teachers, cutting people off welfare after two years and, most recently, making it a crime to be homeless.

His campaign also suffered a setback when he was accused of implying that aboriginals are not "real people" during a campaign announcement condemning the federal Liberal government for not spending more money on health care. Flaherty later apologized for his choice of words.

Graves said Flaherty, Clement and Stockwell are not registering with voters. "As far as the electorate is concerned, they're just not in the race as a significant factor."

The survey also asked people which party they would vote for if a general election was held tomorrow.

Almost half (49.5 per cent) of respondents chose the Liberals, while 38 per cent backed the Tories up 3 per cent from last August and 11 per cent picked the NDP.

"Things are looking really good for the Liberals," said Graves of overall voter support.

But, he added, the numbers are similar to the lead enjoyed by the party before the 1999 election that returned the Tories with a second straight majority government.

Graves said the slight jump in Tory support in recent months despite the highly critical report on the provincial government's role in the water tragedy in Walkerton may be due in large part to the publicity surrounding the ongoing leadership race.

"There is a boost to the Tories right now by being under the magnifying glass of the media because of the campaign," he said.

Nonetheless, he added, McGuinty's poor showing against Eves means the former finance minister is likely the Tories' safest bet on March 23.



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