It’s crunch time in the Ontario election as the three major party leaders face off for the first — and only — time in a live televised debate.
Tuesday’s broadcast is the single most important event of the campaign and Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath are raring to go.
“Is there pressure? Absolutely,” Wynne told reporters Monday at the Westin Prince Hotel in Don Mills.
“But there’s pressure because this is such an important election and there’s such a stark choice between what Tim Hudak is proposing for the province, which I really believe would take us backwards, and what we’re proposing, which will take us forward,” she said of the June 12 vote.
“The debate is always an important juncture in an election campaign and I am the rookie. This is the first time that I’ve had an opportunity to take part in one of these debates.”
Hudak, widely seen as the strongest debater in the legislature of the three leaders, played down expectations of great theatre.
“I won’t say anything exciting nor am I a good actor. I’m straight up. I’m just going to be the guy on the stage giving it to you straight. I recognize the strength of my two opponents and I respect that — I have known Andrea and Kathleen a long time,” he said in Toronto.
“You’ll see someone who probably isn’t the best actor on stage. I’m confident that they will look into the camera tomorrow night and tell you all the things that they are going to spend money on, knowing full well that they don’t have any money — the money has run out.
“I’m going to talk about my plan. There’s only been one leader that has been honest with the people of Ontario, to speak plainly about the challenges that we face and the hole that we are in, and offers an optimistic plan on how we will get to our feet again.”
The New Democrat leader, who was praised for her strong performance against Hudak and former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty in the 2011 campaign debate, said she hopes to showcase herself as he best alternative to the others.
Horwath will use the debate to highlight the troubles with “a corrupt Liberal party that wastes money” and “Mr. Hudak’s Conservatives that, frankly, haven’t made a lot of sense during this campaign.”
Noting this is her second such campaign debate, the Hamilton native stressed she will not be a shrinking violet in the CBC Broadcast Centre studio and has been practicing on a replica set in downtown Toronto.
“I’ve got a nickname and it’s the ‘Steeltown Scrapper’ and I’m not afraid to bring out the ‘Steeltown Scrapper when I need her,” Horwath said after an appearance City TV’s Breakfast Television before heading off to a day of debate preparation.
Tuesday’s 90-minute broadcast — at 6:30 p.m. on CBC, CTV, Global, Sun News Network, TVOntario — will be moderated by TVO’s Steve Paikin, a veteran of past provincial and federal debates.
Wynne has been doing mock debates with her campaign co-chair Tim Murphy, former chief of staff to prime minister Paul Martin, playing Hudak and Liberal advertising maven Amanda Alvaro portraying Horwath.
Murphy, principal secretary Andrew Bevan, campaign director David Herle, and ex-journalist Elly Alboim, have been coaching Wynne, who succeeded McGuinty 15 months ago.
Insiders say Wynne, saddled with a decade of Liberal baggage, is bracing for a barrage of criticism from both her opponents.
In a northern-issues debate last week in Thunder Bay, which Hudak skipped, Horwath repeatedly blasted her for leading a “corrupt Liberal party.”
While Wynne handled the onslaught on the stage, immediately afterward she denounced her NDP rival for trafficking in untruths.
Still, both the Tory and NDP leaders are expected to assail Wynne for McGuinty’s cancellation of gas-fired power plants in Oakville and Mississauga before the 2011 election.
His decision could cost taxpayers and ratepayers up to $1.1 billion over the next 20 years and the Ontario Provincial Police anti-rackets squad is investigating the alleged wiping of premier’s office computers related to the transactions.
Hudak, meanwhile, will face questions about his Million Jobs Plan, designed to create 1 million jobs over eight years, but has become an object of derision after economists noted his math was wrong.
“No, I stand behind my plan. It’s going to create jobs,” he insisted.
“We can have a great argument about how many it’s going to create — 80,000, 100,000, 120,000, 150,000 jobs, but the bottom line is that it’s going to create jobs. We need it.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner was not invited to participate in the debate because his party holds no seats in the legislature.