TORONTO - Former cabinet minister Tim Hudak demonstrated why he's considered the front-runner in Ontario's Progressive Conservative leadership race Thursday by having more than half of the party's caucus signed up as supporters at the official launch of his campaign.

Hudak, who was first elected in 1995 and served in the cabinets of former premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves, is supported by many Tories who were active when the party was in government from 1995 to 2003.

However, the Fort Erie native and representative for Niagara West-Glanbrook said he is not looking to take the Conservatives back to the party's successful Common Sense Revolution era.

"This is 2009, not 1994-1995. This campaign will be looking to the future," Hudak insisted as he kicked off his campaign on the front drive of the legislature.

"My goal as leader of the Ontario PC party is to unite Ontario Conservatives behind a common voice, to defeat Dalton McGuinty in the (2011) election and get Ontario moving again."

Hudak's wife Deb Hutton was a key adviser to Harris, and the former premier is working the phones drumming up support for Hudak even though he won't have any official role with the campaign.

When asked about the differences between his wife's political views and his own, the 41-year-old Hudak said he was the one running for leader, not her.

"Those that know Debbie know that she is strong-willed and very intelligent and she has helped me tremendously," Hudak said as Hutton looked on, holding their infant daughter Miller in her arms.

"When PC party members go the polls at the end of June, they'll have the choice of who is going to lead the party. It'll be my name on the ballot."

Hudak isn't the only Conservative leadership hopeful who must deal with a high-profile spouse in the same party.

Christine Elliott, wife of federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, will launch her leadership bid in Whitby on Friday, and is expected to be the main rival to Hudak.

Her supporters say Elliott is very much her own woman and has different political views than her husband, who was also in the Harris and Eves cabinets before moving to federal politics.

The two other declared leadership candidates are former cabinet minister Frank Klees, who lost the last leadership race to Tory, and relative newcomer Randy Hillier, who was first elected in 2007 and was the former head of a controversial rural landowners organization.

There has been talk about various federal Conservatives taking a run at the Ontario leadership, but so far most of the likely contenders have said they intend to stay put.

Political observers believe it will be difficult for someone who doesn't have a seat in the legislature to be a candidate after Tory's inability to get elected to Queen's Park was seen as a key reason he couldn't unite the caucus behind him.

Tory was also blamed by many Conservatives, especially those from the Harris era, for moving the party too far to the centre and too close to the policies of Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty -- something Hudak wants to correct.

"The PC Party of Ontario wins elections when we speak plainly and offer conservative ideas that reflect the values, hopes and dreams of middle-class Ontarians," Hudak said.

Party insiders say another reason Hudak is considered the front-runner in the leadership race is because he has been organizing and raising funds for much longer than the other candidates.

Political rivals from other parties say he always joins the legislative committees that travel around Ontario the most, and takes advantage of those trips to drum up support with local Conservatives.