Ontario polls shift to left in two-way race to replace Liberals

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The left-leaning New Democrats have gained ground in Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, ahead of a June 7 provincial election, according to opinion polls, setting up a two-way race with the right-leaning Progressive Conservatives to take power.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath waves to her supporters before conceding defeat in Ontario's election a her headquarters in Hamilton, Ontario June 12, 2014. REUTERS/Aaron Harris

While plain-spoken populist Doug Ford looked set to lead the PCs to victory in Ontario when the campaign began nearly three weeks ago, momentum in the fight to unseat Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne has shifted to the left.

An Ipsos opinion poll released on Monday showed Ford’s PCs with 37 percent support, while the New Democrats, led by longtime opposition legislator Andrea Horwath, had 34 percent, and the ruling Liberals 22 percent.

An Ipsos poll taken just before the election campaign began showed the PCs with 40 percent support, the New Democrats with 29 percent and the Liberals with 26 percent.

Ontario is home to a third of Canada’s population of 36 million and is the nation’s economic engine and manufacturing heartland.

Ford, who has drawn comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump for his blunt speech and business background, acknowledged Horwath’s surge as he shifted his attack to her in the final televised leaders’ debate on Sunday.

“I travel around, I’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds of companies. They are terrified of the NDP coming in,” Ford said during the debate, warning that the NDP - which last governed the province from 1990 to 1995 - was not ready for power.

Ford, the bombastic brother of Toronto’s late, crack-smoking mayor, Rob Ford, had been the favorite to win amid promises to cut taxes, balance the budget and spend C$5 billion ($3.9 billion) on Toronto subways - all without cutting jobs.

But his refusal to reveal policy details or a comprehensive platform has drawn criticism.

“He has struggled to articulate a policy vision, and that has seemed to hurt,” said Paul Thomas, a postdoctorate fellow in politics at Carleton University.

While the NDP lost favor after its recession-plagued term in power in the 1990s, Thomas said the desire for change after 15 years of a Liberal government - combined with an “anyone but Ford” sentiment among voters - was helping Horwath.

“The one thing to consider is whether they have peaked somewhat early,” he said.

Horwath, 55, has been the New Democrats’ leader since 2009 and is campaigning on plans to create a province-wide drug and dental coverage plan, return the Hydro One power utility to public ownership and increase the corporate tax rate for large companies.

The latest Ipsos poll of 1,241 eligible voters was conducted from May 25 to 27 and had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Reporting by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Peter Cooney