TORONTO - It's being billed as the battle royal of the Ontario election: a well-liked Liberal education minister in one corner, the popular, high-profile leader of the Progressive Conservatives in the other.

With polls suggesting a tight race, a handful of key ridings across Ontario -- some in cities like London and others in and around Toronto -- are expected to determine the outcome of the Oct. 10 vote.

But it's the fight between Kathleen Wynne and John Tory in Don Valley West that has pundits and political observers scratching their heads.

"I personally don't know how to call that riding,'' said John Wright, vice-president with the polling firm Ipsos-Reid.

Each candidate comes with their own pros and cons, Wright said.

Wynne is relatively well-liked in the riding and won the seat on a crest of discontent with the previous Conservative government's education policy. She's a former school trustee and is seen as a leader in the riding.

Wynne also won't need to travel the province during the campaign as Tory will, and can spend more time talking to local voters, Wright said.

The riding, in which Tory was born and raised, is diverse. Although it includes the wealthiest section of Toronto, a neighbourhood of towering mansions and gated driveways known as the Bridle Path, it is also home to a large number of new immigrants and working-class voters.

But Tory's profile in the riding is high, given his strong but ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Toronto mayor's job, and voters are unlikely to reject the leader of the Conservative Party, said McMaster University political science Prof. Henry Jacek.

"Leaders of the official Opposition can usually run anywhere and win,'' Jacek said. "I think he's going to win that.''

Other ridings -- including Peterborough, Hamilton Mountain, London Fanshawe, Prince Edward-Hastings and Mississauga South -- are all considered up in the air. In smaller urban ridings, pundits say the Liberals will have to fend off the NDP while in cottage country and rural ridings, they face a tough challenge from the Conservatives.

Graham Murray, whose firm has compiled an analysis of ridings to watch in the coming election, said ridings that saw three-way races in 2003 will likely see them again.

If the polling numbers stay the same, Murray said "it's going to be very hard for anyone to form a government.''

Close races to watch in the coming campaign:

  • Mississauga South: Conservative candidate Tim Peterson won this riding west of Toronto last time as a Liberal by only 325 votes. His defection upset some local Conservatives who were muscled out of the nomination race, and some observers wonder whether Peterson will be able to withstand both disaffected Conservatives and local Liberals who may be more motivated to defeat him.
  • London-Fanshawe: Liberal Khalil Ramal took this southwestern Ontario riding in the tightest three-way race in 2003 and says he hasn't stopped campaigning since then. All three parties have put London on their list of ridings to win and the Liberals are expecting a tough fight from the NDP there, especially given lingering emotion over a strike by community living workers which lasted nearly eight weeks.
  • Hamilton Mountain: Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marie Bountrogianni held this traditional southern Ontario bellwether riding with an iron grip, but her departure from politics has left the field wide open. The NDP has high hopes of sweeping Hamilton given they hold both this riding and the riding of Hamilton East-Stoney Creek federally. Andrea Horwath, the party's campaign co-chairwoman, said the party will focus heavily on helping the sagging manufacturing sector and the Liberal decision to give provincial politicians a 25-per-cent pay increase, rather than boost the minimum wage to $10 an hour.
  • Lanark-Frontenac-Lennox and Addington: The Liberals have shone a provincial spotlight on this riding because of its notorious Conservative candidate -- Randy Hillier, a former president of the Lanark Landowners Association who once sent a picture of a dead deer to a Liberal cabinet minister with her name written on the photo. The Liberals call Hillier a throwback to the divisive days of former Conservative premier Mike Harris, and say he wants to undo clean water and endangered species laws. Hillier, in turn, has labelled the Liberal attacks "childish.''
  • Nipissing: While this northern riding was held by former premier Mike Harris, Liberal Monique Smith won it by more than 3,000 votes in 2003. Still, disaffection with the governing Liberals is high in the north over growing unemployment and a sense of alienation from the seat of power in Toronto, making it a tight two-way race between Smith and Conservative Bill Vrebosch, chairman of the Rural Ontario Municipal Association.
  • Peterborough: This small eastern Ontario town is a classic bellwether riding, having elected members from all three mainstream parties both provincially and federally. Voters here tend to elect members from the winning party and all three party leaders have already made several campaign-style stops in the university town. Liberal Jeff Leal is up against Conservative Bruce Fitzpatrick, a local lawyer who has been campaigning for months, and the NDP's Dave Nickle.
  • Prince Edward-Hastings: Agriculture Minister Leona Dombrowsky won her Belleville-area riding with 44 per cent of the vote last time, while the Conservatives captured 40 per cent. Now, the eastern Ontario riding's boundaries have been reconfigured and Dombrowsky is expected to face some simmering anti-government resentment and backlash from rural voters over the Liberal's agricultural record.