Steven Del Duca says only he can beat Doug Ford. Can he convince voters?

In the aftermath of the final leaders’ debate, the race for progressive voters is heating up among Doug Ford’s rivals.

While NDP Leader Andrea Horwath insists only she can thwart Ford’s Progressive Conservatives on June 2, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca’s team is more confident after his showing Monday evening.

“The ‘progressive primary’ ended last night,” a senior Liberal strategist, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, claimed Tuesday.

“With, what, 33 polls in a row showing us in second (behind the Tories) and the NDP a distant third, we are the only place a progressive should go to stop Ford,” said the Grit.

“We know (the Tories) have a lead and it may be baked in, but there’s a lot of campaigning ahead of us — and a lot of Ontarians really don’t like Doug Ford — so we have to convince people we’re the alternative.”

According to The Signal, the Star’s poll aggregator by Vox Pop Labs, the Tories are at 35.3 per cent support and on target to win another majority with 73 seats.

The Liberals are at 27 per cent and in line for 21 seats, with the NDP at 23.6 per cent but on track for 29 seats due to voter concentration, and the Greens at 4.5 per cent, holding their one seat.

Horwath, campaigning in Scarborough, suggested the Liberals — who had seven seats in the 124-member house at dissolution to 38 for the New Democrats — have delusions of grandeur.

“I know that folks in the past have strategically kind of gone towards the Liberals to try to keep the Conservatives from forming government,” the NDP leader said.

“We know that there’s a lot broken … and what we’re saying to folks is this: If you want to fix what’s broken, the first job, number one, is to defeat Doug Ford. This time, your best shot at doing that is a vote for the NDP,” added Horwath, who was endorsed Tuesday by the powerful 180,000-member Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

Ford — who picked up his fourth labour endorsement of the campaign, from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades — said his party appeals to blue-collar workers and lower income earners who traditionally voted NDP.

“It’s no surprise that the workers have stopped supporting the NDP when years ago the NDP stopped supporting workers,” he crowed at the union’s training centre in North York.

“We can’t let the Liberals take us back. We can’t let the NDP hold us back.”

Asked if he believes the Tories “benefit from a divided progressive vote,” Ford suggested voters are pragmatic, not ideological.

“We’re putting money back into people’s pockets and they’re going to continue making it more unaffordable,” he charged, attacking the other leaders despite their respective promises to tackle inflation.

Bruno Mandic, of the painters’ union, said the Tories “have been working for workers” by boosting apprenticeships, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and finding jobs for the skilled tradespeople.

A senior Conservative, speaking confidentially in order to discuss strategy, maintained that Ford’s appeal to blue-collar workers confounds both the New Democrats and Liberals.

“Everyone likes to talk about the ‘progressive primary,’ but this whole election is about the elites versus the working class,” said the Tory insider.

“The New Democrats are having problems because they haven’t reconciled the elites biking to work in downtown Toronto and downtown Waterloo and downtown Ottawa with the people working in mines and mills and factories in the north and the southwest.”

Del Duca, campaigning at a small factory near Pearson airport to promote the four-day work week, said voters should see past Ford’s recent string of labour-friendly announcements — such as hiking the minimum wage he froze in 2018 — given actions early in his term.

“Doug Ford, who cancelled paid sick leave, who got rid of minimum-wage increases, who undermined workers at every turn,” the Liberal leader said, noting the Tories allowed big box stores to stay open through much of the COVID-19 pandemic when smaller shops were restricted to curbside pickup.

Del Duca shrugged off the union endorsements for Ford, instead touting Liberal promises like $1 public transit fares, an optional return to Grade 13, a cap of 20 on class sizes and no provincial HST on prepared foods under $20.

“When the rank-and-file members of those unions … take a look at what Ontario Liberals have in our plan for economic dignity, stacked up against Doug Ford … they will recognize that (we) will in fact make their lives better and they will cast their ballots accordingly.”

Meanwhile, Green Leader Mike Schreiner received an endorsement from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which is also backing selected NDP and Liberal candidates.

In a first, the 60,000-member union endorsed Schreiner, who is running in Guelph, and Green candidate Matt Richter in the Tory stronghold of Parry-Sound Muskoka.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union said it is backing the NDP because “they are champions of public services and Ontario workers.”

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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