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Ontario election campaign likely to get much nastier, experts predict

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath marks her ballot during an advanced poll at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Hamilton Saturday.

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Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath marks her ballot during an advanced poll at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Hamilton Saturday.

TORONTO - Despite allegations of corruption, recklessness, dishonesty, and possibly criminal behaviour that have sprouted like noxious weeds on Ontario's campaign trail, this election has not been especially nasty, experts say.

However, they say, that's likely to change before voting day.

"It doesn't look that much out of the ordinary," said Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at York University.

"(But) there's going to be new bombshells dropped, particularly close to election day, when it will be too late and too difficult for campaigns to respond."

So far, the three main political camps have largely tended to avoid firing their mud canons directly at the rival party's leader, hoping instead enough dirt will stick by innuendo and association.

Whether the mudslinging proves effective in persuading people to vote one way or another — or perhaps not at all — remains to be seen, but it does appear to get people to take notice.

"By using those extreme terms, you certainly get the attention," said Alan Middleton, professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business.

"What mud sticks: That's the key game that's going on."

The most pointed barbs to this point have come from New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath and rival Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.

At almost every turn, they have tried to paint the governing Liberals as scandal-riven, untrustworthy and worse.

"This campaign is really about cleaning up the corruption at Queen's Park," Horwath said at one point — a theme repeated in most NDP messaging.

"This Liberal party has behaved in a way that is corrupt."

Hudak, too, has tried to tie the Liberals — and Premier Kathleen Wynne in particular — to corruption.

"We have seen again and again that the world of crony capitalism — where big government gets into bed with big business — that's how corruption starts,'' Hudak said at one campaign stop.

The Tory leader has also invoked the federal Adscam scandal where criminal charges were laid and notes police are investigating the destruction of records in the premier's office related to the gas plant fiasco.

Peter Graefe, a political science professor at McMaster University, said the campaign has been slightly nastier than in 2011, particularly when it comes to the NDP's aggressive anti-Liberal rhetoric.

For her part, Wynne has attacked Hudak for his "reckless" commitment to fire 100,000 civil servants if elected, while relentlessly attempting to portray Horwath and the NDP as having betrayed the party's principles.

Wayne Petrozzi, a politics professor at Ryerson University, said he didn't think the campaign had been particularly negative, yet.

"We tend to think of negative in terms of personal attacks," Petrozzi said. "For the most part, so far, the focus has remained on issues."

Cameron Anderson, a political science professor at Western University, said federal Conservative attack ads directed at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau or past one aimed at his predecessors were far more negative than those of the Ontario campaign.

"It's been more policy related rather than this person is a bad person," Anderson said.

Demonizing a leader can backfire badly — as the federal Conservatives once discovered with a tasteless attack on former prime minister Jean Chretien's slight facial deformity.

Perhaps that's why Horwath, for example, has refused to brand Wynne herself as corrupt or Hudak has not yet called her a crook.

"I suspect that it will turn, that character will become the focus," Petrozzi said.

-With files from Allison Jones

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