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
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
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
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
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.