TORONTO - Politics was always a part of Christine Elliott's life, but there was a point in time when the meaning of that word completely changed for her.

She was a new mother with a very sick baby. John, one of her triplet sons, had contracted encephalitis from an insect bite. Elliott spent sleepless nights by his bedside, terrified he might not survive.

John lived, but the infection left him with "significant health challenges" and a learning disability, she says.

Elliott started volunteering at the local children's treatment centre where her son spent much of his time, and started to see the world a little differently.

"It made me want to do more, it made me want to get more involved in trying to make a difference at a different level," Elliott says.

"I had done a lot of work as a volunteer, but when you see some of the things that you really want to change or to make better, that was when I really started thinking that I wanted to get involved at a deeper level as a candidate."

That opportunity didn't come until a 2006 byelection, when Elliott won the provincial riding of Whitby-Oshawa -- a riding she shares with her husband, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

Now at 54, she's gunning for the job he twice failed to win: leading the Ontario Tories.

Her political career may have got off to a late start, but the Progressive Conservative party is practically part of the Elliott DNA.

She was born in Oshawa, an auto town about 50 kilometres east of Toronto, the eldest of four sisters. Elliott grew up in a "very political" family, with both parents involved in the federal and provincial Tory parties, she recalls.

Her father John was a physical education and history teacher who coached sports teams and ran 10-kilometre races. Her mother Isabelle was the "consummate parent volunteer," helping out at the mental health centre, school events, and health-related charities, Elliott says. At election time, she ran campaign offices for the local Tory candidate, keeping them organized, managing phone calls, making literature drops.

"From when I can remember as a young person, we were always involved in campaigns," Elliott says.

"That was something that kind of went hand-in-hand for us, for being very involved politically but also very involved in community affairs too, so I always associate the two of them together. And it became more so with my children, as they went through school and especially with my one son who has special needs."

Unlike her sisters who all became teachers, Elliott pursued law and was called to the bar in 1980.

She worked as a senior investigator for the Ontario ombudsman, then audited bank operations for the Bank of Nova Scotia in the 1980s. She returned to law and joined the Whitby-based firm of Flaherty, Dow, Elliott & McCarthy in 1993, specializing in corporate and commercial law.

After marrying Flaherty, Elliott considered a move into politics in the early 1990s. Things changed when their triplets -- John, Galen and Quinn -- were born in 1991. She stayed at home with her sons for the first few years, then returned to work full-time when they started school.

Eliott continued to work for the party behind the scenes and volunteered with local organizations such as the Grandview Children's Centre and the Durham Mental Health Services.

Best known as one half of an Ottawa power couple, Elliott has tried to carve a niche for herself in the public eye as someone other than the finance minister's wife. In some ways, it's worked to her advantage.

While rivals Tim Hudak, Frank Klees and Randy Hillier entered the race with plenty of political baggage in tow, Elliott was a little-known entity. It gave her the chance to define herself politically and cast a wider net, despite the inevitable comparisons to her husband's neo-conservative views.

When Flaherty ran for the job, he advocated for tax cuts, outlawing teacher strikes and jailing the homeless if they refused to go to shelters or treatment centres.

Elliott has gone in a different direction. She slammed tax hamonization -- "this is the wrong tax at the wrong time" -- in spite of Flaherty's $4.3-billion deal with the province. She not only joined federal Liberal calls for employment insurance reform, but took it a step further, proposing that Ontario withdraw from the program her husband had steadfastly defended for weeks. She says she won't get rid of the much-despised health tax, but would make sure the revenues go directly to health care.

Elliott argues that as a lawyer, she's spent years advocating for her clients. The same goes for defending Ontario's interests, even if that means clashing with her husband.

"I've always had my own career, and my own things that have been important to me -- my own volunteer work, and now my own job as an MPP," she says.

"We don't always see things the same way and I think that's to be expected. But I think that over time, I have developed my own views on a variety of things and I don't mind speaking up about them."

From the start, Elliott cast herself as the more centrist candidate in the race, preaching the Red Tory mantra of fiscal conservatism and social responsibility. She attacked her rivals Hillier and Hudak for promising to scrap the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal -- a legacy of the Tories' 42-year dynasty under leaders like John Robarts and Bill Davis -- and warned the "toxic" policy would tank with voters in the next election, just like John Tory's doomed campaign promise to fund religious schools.

But she's also offered some tantalizing morsels to the party's most devout neo-conservatives, from freezing the minimum wage to a flat eight per cent income tax.

Elliott rejects all labels -- "I see myself as a Progressive Conservative, period" -- but says the party must find a way to merge its two great traditions of compassion and fiscal conservatism to beat the ruling Liberals.

"That's something I think will speak to all of us as Progressive Conservatives, no matter where on the spectrum you might define yourself," she adds.

"I think those are solid principles that apply north-south, apply rural-urban. I think those are things that all of us can say, 'Yes, that's what we do believe in as Progressive Conservatives,' and I think that will unite us as a party and take us forward."

Her message has won over prominent Red Tories like Sen. Hugh Segal, a member of the Big Blue Machine that made the party an unstoppable force in the 1970s and '80s.

The flat tax proposal is the kind of "policy ingenuity" that encompasses the best of Ontario conservatism -- it's pragmatic, fiscally responsible, fair and aims for smaller government, Segal says.

"In that sense, I think she very much reflects the kind of conservatism we want for the future, which has to have a bit of right and left," he says.

"I think of all the candidates, she brings it together in the most effective way."