The tone was very different at today’s leader debate on northern Ontario issues. Doug Ford took a much more aggressive line from Monday’s Toronto debate. For the first time he unleashed a full on attack on Andrea Horwath and the NDP. He said the NDP is in the hands of “downtown Toronto radicals.” Andrea Horwath turned her focus on the Liberal record of 15 years in government. Again and again, she found opportunities to remind voters that the result of all those Liberal governments has been growing “frustration with the disconnect” between the north and the south.  And the Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne found herself again in the middle between the two attacking contenders.

The event was staged in front of members of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities. Wynne chose to address those leaders. She had the best command of the issues and the details of Ontario policy in the north. Wynne talked about how she has worked together with northern political leaders increasing investment in the north. But she didn’t seem to reach out past the room to the TV cameras.

Horwath divided her comments, acknowledging the expertise in the room but trying to score points against both Wynne and Ford that would resonate with the people of northern Ontario.

Doug Ford made it a northern Ontario love-in.  He used every opportunity to connect with northerners; talking about his “friends” in the north, his love of the north, his respect for the north and his many visits to the north.

So what’s at stake in a debate about northern Ontario? Well, most importantly there are 13 ridings at play. Right now the NDP hold five of those seats – that represents a quarter of the NDP caucus. The Liberals and Conservatives each hold three. Redistribution has created two new ridings in the far north and one NDP riding, in Kenora, is open. 

Those numbers mean the number one target for the PCs in northern Ontario is the NDP. That prompted the attack on NDP. Ford asked, “Andrea, who are you?”  Ford went on to ask if Horwath was really for the working people in the north or for the “extremist environmentalists” in the south.  Don’t worry. Ford took lots of shots at Wynne too but most of them were northern issue versions of what we heard in Monday’s Toronto debate.

Before the big TV debate, the one all the networks will carry, on May 27, Horwath and Wynne are going to have to find an effective response to the simplistic statements from Ford. His favourite line again today was that both his opponents will “spend, spend, spend and tax, tax, tax.”  He promised only the Conservatives can stop Ontarians from being “gouged by their government.” Today both Wynne and Horwath tried, and I think failed, to make the point that Ford can’t deliver on his many spending promises. Everyone, everywhere in this big province, wants more resources. No matter the issue Ford promises those resources will be available in both debates this week and at every campaign stop. Money seems to be no object.

At one point Horwath asked Ford for his costed party platform. Ford said it is coming and will be “responsible.” The Progressive Conservative platform might, maybe, give Wynne and Horwath their opening to make political points to counter the never ending list of Ford’s spending promises and his claim that only he is “for the people.”