No doubt the knives are out for Howard Hampton this week.

On the surface, at least, that shouldn’t be a big surprise. In last Thursday’s provincial election, the Ontario NDP under Howie’s leadership took just 14 percent of the popular vote while winning only nine seats–three short of official party status–in the 103-seat legislature (8.7 percent)
Four years ago, even as Ontarians unceremoniously dumped the former Bob Rae government, the NDP still managed some 21 percent of the popular vote to capture 17 seats in the 130-seat house (13 percent).
Howie will be the first one to take responsibility for the NDP campaign. And that’s exactly what he told reporters at a post-election press conference last Friday morning at the Red Dog Inn here.
But he also stressed he would not have changed anything, arguing that voters–panicking over the latest poll which pointed to another Tory majority government–flocked to the Liberals on election day in a last-ditch effort to thwart Premier Harris and Co.
It was that so-called “strategic voting” which ended up costing the NDP several seats in the election, he charged.
Wishful thinking? A drowning man clutching at straws? Perhaps. But while the final results last Thursday certainly didn’t reflect it, it’s equally clear the NDP had gained the most ground as the 28-day campaign headed into its final days–starting with Howie’s effective performance in the televised leaders’ debate.
In fact, the Toronto Star, which had endorsed the Liberals for almost two decades, threw its support behind the NDP this time. Quite an accomplishment for a party that had been dropping like a stone in the polls just after the election was called.
And frankly, no one else in the NDP caucus could have done a better job.
That’s not to say Howie is without fault, and he did make two colossal blunders in the last days of the campaign. First, he allowed himself to get goaded into making reference to Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty’s resemblance to Anthony Perkins of “Psycho” fame (for which he later apologized).
Then he took a far worse beating when he stupidly allowed campaign bluster to trip him up over health care woes he said his family had faced when, in fact, that wasn’t really the case.
People have come to expect feigned anger, wild accusations, grandstanding, and other theatrics during Question Period at Queen’s Park. It has no place on the campaign trail. All politicians fall victim to it, at one time or another, but that’s no excuse.
Howie should have known better–in both instances.
Still, he has earned a better fate than being dispatched to the dustbin of history along with all the other leaders cast aside by their own parties. He certainly has the savvy, poise, skill, and experience to resurrect the party’s fortunes over the coming term–with or without official status at Queen’s Park.
Nor did he snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as Mr. McGuinty did, carrying on the fine Liberal tradition begun by former premier David Peterson (in 1990) and repeated by former leader Lyn McLeod (in 1995).
More importantly, Howie has proven to be a winner, time and again, especially when the odds are against him. It happened in 1987. It happened in 1995. It happened in the party leadership race in 1996.
And it happened again last Thursday when he pulled out a comfortable victory for his own seat here in the new Kenora-Rainy River riding even though the polls had indicated a different story.
Many have learned not to bet against Howie, or to doubt his ability to accomplish what he sets out to do. The Ontario NDP, if they entertain any hopes of rising from the ashes, would be wise to do the same.

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