Ontario's lowest income earners would see the health tax eliminated beginning Jan. 1 under a Progressive Conservative government, party leader John Tory promised on Thursday.

Speaking in Toronto, Tory reiterated his proposal to phase out the province's controversial $2.6 billion health tax over four years.

The first to benefit would be those earning less than $30,000 a year, he said.

"That will remove an unconscionable $300 burden from 1 million Ontario taxpayers with very modest incomes,'' Tory said.

"I want to lead a government that understands the balance between a strong economy, a government that business can trust and the right controls and regulations.''

The health tax, which can cost workers up to $900 a year, is a sore spot for Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty.

McGuinty broke an election promise not to raise taxes when his government imposed the premium in 2004.

The Liberal leader has defended the move, saying he had little choice because the previous Conservative government hid a $5.6 billion debt.

McGuinty says the province can't afford to rescind the health tax because of the health demands of the aging and growing population.

NDP Leader Howard Hampton has promised to phase out the health tax for low-income earners and reduce it by $450 for taxpayers that make up to $80,000 a year.

Health care at risk under Tory: McGuinty

Campaigning in Ottawa, McGuinty kept up his attack on Tory, reiterating his warning that a vote for the Conservatives will decimate public health care.

The Liberal leader said voters have a right to know which hospitals will close and how many nurses and provincial inspectors will be fired under the Conservative plan to cut $1.5 billion in government spending.

"If Mr. Tory wants to hold himself out as a strong leader, then he has a responsibility to identify for us today -- not later -- today, within the context of this campaign, exactly where those cuts are going to come from,'' McGuinty said.

"What exactly is he going to cut? How many nurses? What exactly will it do to drive up our wait times? Is he going to fire water inspectors as they did last time? Or are they going to fire meat inspectors as they did last time? You want to play in the big leagues? Tell us exactly where you are going to cut $1.5 billion out of our public services.''

With less than two weeks until the Oct. 10 election, and the Liberals holding a small lead in the polls, McGuinty is ramping up his attacks on Tory and frequently comparing him to former Conservative premier Mike Harris.

Rivals support health care privatization: Hampton

Campaigning in Windsor, Hampton took aim at McGuinty and Tory, saying they back private involvement in the health care system.

McGuinty and Tory would establish more profit-driven corporations and more private control over health care, Hampton told a partisan crowd of 500 CUPE front-line health-care workers.

Hampton said public systems in Manitoba and Saskatchewan -- both implemented by NDP governments -- are providing better care than Ontario.

The NDP leader is proposing a minimum standard of care for seniors of 3.5 hours per patient per day at a cost of $400 million a year.

He says the proposal would ensure more nurses who currently work part-time are hired full-time to provide better care.

Several front-line workers took the podium before Hampton's speech with their own criticism of what they called the McGuinty government's "shameful'' health-care record.

"(Seniors) should not have to die alone because their caregiver had to feed someone else their dinner,'' said Pat Ridel, a long-term care worker in Petrolia with 30 years of experience.

Health, education top issues: poll

Meanwhile, a new poll suggests health care and public education are the most important issues facing Ontarians.

The latest Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey released Thursday found 62 per cent of respondents ranked health care as their top priority, while 46 per cent said they consider education the number one issue.

Some 34 per cent said McGuinty's record would be a "critical factor'' affecting their vote, while 27 per cent felt that way about Tory's plan to fund religious schools

Of those residents who rated health and education as their top priorities, nearly half said they were planning to vote Liberal, compared with less than one-third for the Conservatives.

With files from The Canadian Press