Feb. 17, 2003
Eves sitting pretty

IAN URQUHART

IF THE CURRENT provincial Conservative leadership race were to be decided the old-fashioned way — by delegates at a convention — today's Star/Ekos poll would be very bad news for at least three of the candidates.

Delegates at a convention tended to be longstanding party members, and for them the candidate's "winnability" was a key factor in their decision. That is, they wanted a person who could lead the party to victory in the next election.

Today's poll suggests former finance minister Ernie Eves is that person, with Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer having an outside shot. The rest—Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Health Minister Tony Clement, and Labour Minister Chris Stockwell—would be hard-pressed to beat Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals in the next provincial election.

On the question of which candidate the general public would "like to see" as the new Conservative leader, Eves gets 25 per cent support and Witmer 16 per cent. The rest are in single digits.

(The only consolation here for Flaherty, Clement and Stockwell is that 39 per cent had no opinion, which means there is lots of room for improvement.)

And 40 per cent of the general public say Eves would make a "good" premier for Ontario, well ahead of McGuinty (25 per cent). Witmer, at 24 per cent, is close behind. Trailing are Flaherty (21 per cent), Stockwell (20 per cent), and Clement (17 per cent).

Even better for Eves, only 17 per cent think he would make a "poor" premier, compared to 21 per cent for Witmer and 27 per cent for McGuinty. Flaherty (28 per cent), Clement (30 per cent), and Stockwell (31 per cent) all have significantly higher negative ratings than Eves.

All of which suggests that the party establishment, in rallying behind Eves to replace Mike Harris, was right: he has the best chance of winning the next election.

But unlike a brokered leadership convention, where the establishment usually holds sway, Harris' successor will be chosen by a one-member, one-vote process. That means the establishment will have no more clout than a rank-and-file member. Indeed, it will likely have less clout because the establishment vote is concentrated in a few Toronto ridings (Toronto Centre-Rosedale, St. Paul's, and Don Valley West). The provincial Tory constitution stipulates that the leadership vote will be evenly distributed, with each of the province's 103 ridings worth 100 points.

So, a riding with 1,000 card-carrying Conservatives (say, Don Valley West) counts no more than a riding with 10 (say, Timmins-James Bay, a Tory wasteland). And a single Tory leadership vote in Timmins-James Bay will actually count for more than one in Don Valley West.

And that same voter in Timmins-James Bay might not care as much about "winnability" as about whether the candidate actually visited the riding and shook his hand.

It gets worse, for the party establishment. The candidates are all busily selling memberships now, and among their targets are single-issue voters—for example, people who strongly favour public subsidies for private religious schools. For them, winnability is not just a secondary concern; it is not even on their radar screen.

Rather, they want to elect a candidate who agrees with them on their issue.

Thus, today's poll isn't as bad news for the anybody-but-Eves brigade as it might first appear.

But it is bad news for McGuinty. First, his Liberals are not as far ahead of the Tories as they had been. Last year, the gap was as wide as 20 percentage points. Now it is just 12 points, according to the Star/Ekos poll.

The narrowing of the gap suggests that Harris might be taking some of the public animosity toward the government out the door with him.

Secondly, today's poll shows more people think McGuinty would make a poor premier than a good one. This is not good news for someone who has been Leader of the Opposition for more than five years and has worked hard on his public image.

If the poll is accurate, the Liberals have essentially two choices: go back to the drawing board and make McGuinty over once again, or downplay their leader and run as a competent team.

Either that, or hope that the single-issue people and the guys in Timmins-James Bay elect Flaherty or Clement as the Tory leader.




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