ANALYSIS: Andrea Horwath blooms early in election campaign, but will it help Doug Ford?

Decision Ontario: Alan Carter speaks 1-on-1 with Andrea Horwath
WATCH ABOVE: Alan Carter will be spending time with each of the major party's campaigns. On Monday, Carter spoke with Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Sitting at the back of her campaign tour bus following a speech in London, Andrea Horwath is given a small pot of orange roses.

“A lady missed you at the event, but wanted you to have these,” a fresh-faced staffer working on the Ontario NDP tour told Horwath.

“She said, ‘These are for Andrea because she’s blooming like a rose.’”

READ MORE: Who is Andrea Horwath? Ontario NDP leader campaigns on ‘change for the better’

Horwath beamed while her two closest aides on the bus, tour manager Laura Ziemba and special advisor Marie Della Mattia, smiled broadly.

There are good reasons to smile for the NDP in this early stage of the campaign, which will wrap up on June 7.

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Polling shows momentum for Horwath as voters weary of Kathleen Wynne and wary of Doug Ford look for another option.

READ MORE: Ontario NDP takes nibble out of Tory majority, seat projections show

Unlike her first two campaigns as leader in 2011 and 2014, this time Horwath looks ready for the attention. She’s well versed in the most-developed platform she has ever campaigned on and has learned to pivot away from attacks more effectively.

When the Liberals questioned the fundamentals of her numbers, she smiled broadly and said no one should trust Liberal math.

Horwath said her plan is truly costed and signed off on by former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, who, it should also be noted, gave a green light to the now defunct People’s Guarantee for the Ontario PC Party.

Parry and thrust

While Liberals accused Horwath of being remedial in math, the PCs said she’s just like the Liberals – ready to spend, spend, spend.

“It’s interesting to be the person fielding those attacks, but I’m going to remain focused,” Horwath told me during an interview in the back of her campaign bus as it rolled through southwestern Ontario.

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The 55-year-old former Hamilton city councillor said, “This is a change election.” She repeated this line said so often by the NDP team that Horwath actually quotes it back to a crowd in London, saying, “Many people have been saying this is a change election.”

READ MORE: NDP Leader Andrea Horwath talks bringing change to Ontario, says party will capitalize on momentum

All campaigning parties like to drink their own Kool-Aid, but early in the contest the NDP are giving off a swagger not seen since a bespectacled Rhodes scholar named Bob Rae woke up to find himself premier in 1990.

“First and foremost, I’m not Bob Rae. Bob Rae is the Liberals’ problem now,” Horwath shot back when I asked about the long shadow cast by Rae’s recession-era government.

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“It’s a different time. I’m a different person. I think our plan is achievable,” Horwath said.

READ MORE: NDP overtakes Liberals as the ‘Anti-Ford’ party, according to Ipsos poll

Still, for many middle-aged voters in middle-of-the-road suburban Ontario, there remains a skepticism about the NDP as financial stewards – a concern that isn’t helped by promises of more universal care than the activist Liberals.

The bigger question is whether power is actually achievable for the NDP. Will an orange wave in Ontario have the same result as Jack Layton’s orange wave federally? It vaulted the NDP into official opposition, but gave the Conservatives a majority.

If the ‘anyone-but-Ford’ vote exclusively goes to Horwath, she may be able to eke out a victory. However, the more likely scenario is a left-centre vote split that allows PCs to pick up extra seats and cruise into government.

READ MORE: Ontario NDP platform contains $3B miscalculation, Liberals claim

When I asked Horwath about that scenario during a town hall, she side-stepped and said the only thing a politician can say when confronted with such hypotheticals — she’ll wait to see what the people of Ontario tell her to do.

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That will be the thorn in Horwath’s orange roses, which may indeed bloom and deliver the best results the Ontario NDP have seen since 1990. But in doing so, it may also hand the province’s keys to Doug Ford.