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At Tory leadership review, Tim Hudak’s reinvention pledge wins votes: Cohn
By Martin Regg Cohn
posted 12-Feb-2012  ·  

Remember Tim Hudak?

Never mind. He’d rather you didn’t remember that Tim Hudak.

Yesterday’s man is history, because the leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives wants you to know that today, he is a new man: The man who would be premier.

A man with a mandate: a generous 78.7 per cent vote from PC delegates who converged on the honeymoon retreat of Niagara Falls to renew their marriage vows.

His own political honeymoon has waned since he won the leadership three years ago, so Hudak is promising to remake himself. The weekend convention sounded as much like marital counselling as political renewal, but it worked:

Tories are standing by their man. Persuading Ontarians to fall in love with the new, improved PC leader won’t be so easy.

Hudak is pressing the reset button, engineering a personal rebirth and political rebranding in time for the next election. Rather than auditioning for the role of opposition leader, as he did last time, he will recast himself as a premier-in-waiting.

Now he vows to seed the province with positive ideas about job-creation, economic renewal and conservative values. Post-election, the PCs have maintained their non-stop negativity. Possibly Hudak wanted to project a feisty partisan edge ahead of the weekend vote.

But it’s time to show Ontarians that Newt Gingrich isn’t his role model for rejectionism. And that Tories have more ideas in their playbook than the Changebook platform that flopped in the last election.

Changebook is now a dead letter, disowned and discarded by the man who once peddled it. Henceforth, he’ll heed and lead the party faithful with greater fidelity to core conservative principles. Strangely, though, he didn’t flesh out his promised new vision with much clarity — possibly because the speech was crafted by many of the same minds that had a hand in last year’s speeches.

Like most politicians, Hudak tells his partisans what they want to hear. He’s just had a tin ear when it comes to the rest of the province.

Today he has a second chance to convince voters he has what it takes: not just the chops, but the character (which Ontarians didn’t warm up to after the televised leaders’ debate, when he delivered his talking points flawlessly but sounded too scripted).

Much has been made of the apparent conflict between a seemingly contrived outer Tim, and a supposedly earnest inner Tim struggling to break out. Hudak himself, and his closest loyalists, concede that his television manner needs work: Over-rehearsed, he never misses his marks — but fails to connect.

“You said, ‘Tim, we know the real you, and the real you didn’t come through’,” Hudak mused from the podium. “And you were right.”

So were voters. The truth is he often reverts to the role of valedictorian at the Bob Barker School of Television Game Show Hosts. As leader, he must unlearn a lifetime of bad habits if he is to increase his authenticity quotient on air.

Against the romantic backdrop of Niagara Falls, with Valentine’s Day coming, Tory delegates agreed to forgive and forget. The broad electorate will prove more discriminating.

Not for them the inflammatory talk of chain gangs, hypocritical HST harangues, attacks on “foreign workers” and homophobic campaign flyers. Hudak has some ideas worth debating — on reforms to arbitration, vocational training, deficit reduction — but he still torques them with too much partisan spin.

An empty canvas before the election, Hudak made a bad first impression with Ontarians by taking the low road — and too many side roads — on the campaign trail. He initially worked hard to cultivate ethnic groups, but ended up working against himself.

Delegates demanded that the road to renewal means returning to the party’s roots. Does that mean the next campaign be driven by core conservative policies that appeal to bedrock supporters but bypass Ontario’s mainstream? Significantly, Hudak gave a gushing shout-out to former premier Mike Harris in the front row, whose Tory government “did what it said it was going to do.”

Hudak may yet remake himself as a kinder, gentler leader. But if his party pulls him in the opposite direction, Ontarians will notice the disconnect.

Marital reconciliation is never easy. Not even in Niagara Falls.

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