Conservative incumbent in Canada's Ontario leads two weeks ahead of vote

FILE PHOTO: Ontario's Premier Doug Ford speaks at the Stellantis Research and Development Centre in Windsor, Ontario, Canada May 2, 2022. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Incumbent Progressive Conservative Doug Ford is leading the race to win a second term as Ontario premier with promises of tax relief at the gas pump amid soaring inflation and fixing clogged highways in Canada's biggest city, Toronto.

Ford, 57, swept to power in 2018, ending 15 years of Liberal rule in Ontario - home to nearly 40% of Canada's 38.2 million people, and the June 2 election could reflect voters' views on his handling of the pandemic, which was often criticized.

He now leads in all polls, with the Liberals and New Democrats improving from the start of the campaign though still far from putting Ford's re-election in peril.

One analyst said that the desire for change in government was low.

Ford "is still in the driver's seat," said David Coletto, chief executive officer of polling company Abacus Data. "Because it's not a change election, people are not ... really looking to figure out which of these parties has the best shot at beating Ford at this moment."

Ford's pre-election budget in April promised billions of dollars of spending on infrastructure projects and outlined a tax credit for low-income earners, resulting in a higher budget deficit in the current fiscal year than the last.

Ford may win 35% of the vote, an Abacus Data poll published on Monday showed. That compares with 28% for Liberal candidate Steven Del Duca and 24% for New Democrat Andrea Horwath. The desire for change is "far lower" than it was before the previous election, according to Abacus.

With inflation at its highest level in more than three decades, housing and cost of living issues are driving the campaign and all three main candidates are promising some relief to voters.

Ford is pledging to reduce taxes on gasoline and fuel if re-elected. Del Duca is promising to reduce transit fees across the province to C$1 ($0.78) a ride, while Horwath pledged to create an annual speculation and vacancy tax on residential property to bring down housing prices.

Factbox on key issues and candidate profiles:

If Ford does not win an outright majority, the two left-leaning leaders could keep him out of office by joining forces. Federal Liberals now are being supported by the New Democrats, a deal made to keep Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in power until 2025.

"There's room there for the Liberals and the New Democrats to start chipping away," said Coletto. But at the moment, "no one has momentum," he added.

($1 = 1.2826 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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