|THE SURPRISING aspect of today's EKOS poll is that the governing Conservatives are still so high. After a string of bad news, ranging from the Walkerton water inquiry to a slumping economy, that Premier Mike Harris and the Tories still command support from 35 per cent of the decided voters is testament to their staying power. Yes, they are 15 percentage points behind the Liberals, according to EKOS, but they could be a lot worse off. At this point in their early 1990s mandate, for example, the New Democrats had dropped to the mid-20s and were in third place. How does Harris do it? In a word: Men. While the Harris Tories trail the Liberals by 30 points among female voters, they remain ahead (albeit narrowly, by one point) among men. Apparently, a lot of guys find resonance in Harris' propensity for golfing and fishing and exchanging headlocks with WWF wrestlers, and they applaud that he ``did what he said he would do.'' For them, Harris can do no wrong. If Harris remains in office - a big ``if'' - the Tories will likely continue to hold onto these male voters. All they need, then, is a slight improvement among women to bring Himself back even with the Liberals. (This analysis assumes that the Liberals' 15-point lead is exaggerated, as it usually is between elections, because their support is soft and includes people who get confused between federal and provincial politics.) Thus, the Tories could still win the next election, in spite of everything. There is a big warning sign for the Tories in today's EKOS poll, however: They are a poor second in the 905 area code. Sixteen months prior to the last election, when the Tories reached a nadir across the whole province, they were still even or ahead in the 905. Now they are 20 points behind the Liberals in the seat-rich region. This finding underscores the result of the Vaughan-King-Aurora by-election last June, which gave the Liberals their first seat - by a wide margin - in the 905 belt around Toronto since the 1990 election. It means that, barring a turnaround, seemingly impregnable 905 seats held by cabinet ministers like Janet Ecker, Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement, Dave Tsubouchi and John Snobelen would be vulnerable. As for cabinet ministers in the 416 area code, where the Tories trail the Liberals by a whopping 34 points, they should probably be shopping their resumes. Again barring a turnaround, Attorney-General David Young, Solicitor-General David Turnbull, and Mines Minister Dan Newman - all of whom won their seats by just 6 to 8 points in 1999 - would be
certain losers. Even the redoubtable Chris Stockwell, who won by 14 points in Etobicoke Centre in 1999, would have great difficulty hanging onto his seat. What can the Tories do to turn this situation around? They tried reinvigorating themselves last spring, with a throne speech and a dense new agenda that tilted further to the right. But it fell flat. Now they are likely to try a new tack by portraying themselves as underdogs and going negative. Education Minister Ecker gave us a glimpse of this strategy during the past week. In response to a reporter's question about the Conservatives' chances in the upcoming Beaches-East York by-election, she said: ``It'll be a fight. No question. But that brings out the best in us. They wrote us off in 1990. They wrote us off in '95. They wrote us off in '99. And you (the media) are all writing us off for the next time. That's good. We like coming from behind.'' Only in the case of the 1995 election is Ecker right. Yes, the pundits wrote off the Conservatives in 1990, but they were right to do so. (The Conservatives finished a bad third in that election.) But the pundits did not write them off in 1999, and they have most definitely not written them off in the next election. Ecker's remark is nonetheless revealing of the Tories' current mindset. By inventing an underdog mythology, they can reverse roles with Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals. Instead of going on the defensive against attacks on their own policies, the Tories can portray McGuinty as a putative premier and poke holes in his proposals. McGuinty and the Liberals should brace themselves for an onslaught of negative ads and speeches.
Ian Urquhart is The Star's provincial affairs columnist.