When Ontario voters head to the polls Thursday, they will deliver a verdict on a question that hangs heavy in the air provincially, but will also loom large in next year's federal vote.
Kathleen Wynne is fighting a political foe every bit as formidable as Tim Hudak or Andrea Horwarth, just as Stephen Harper will be duelling with a phenomenon as dangerous as Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau.
It's called voter fatigue, a collective sense among an electorate that one party's time is up and it can be more powerful than the vagaries of the campaign or the intricacies of any policies. It is the sense that it is time to throw the bums out.
In Wynne's case, it is a test of whether a new leader can put a fresh, more appealing face on a gang that buckled under the former leader, mired in scandal and the lax management that always crops up in governments that get long in the tooth. This Liberal government is 11 years old.
Harper may be showing all the characteristics of a leader on the way out, spending his time as a Cold Warrior on the world stage, picking up the pace of foreign travel, looking for legacy issues like his maternal health initiative and giving select interviews on foreign policy.
But he has also been shrewd about limiting his face time with Canadians, and thereby limiting voter fatigue, ensuring he is not popping up on TV screens in rec rooms every night. It appears Harper will be trying to break through the magic decade wall, going to the people for another mandate after more than nine years in power, asking for a vote to stretch his rule to 13 years.
Brian Mulroney couldn't do it. Neither could Jean Chrétien (his 10th anniversary as prime minister came as Paul Martin was assuming the Liberal leadership).
At the provincial level, Quebec's Jean Charest and Wynne's predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, couldn't head into a second decade in power.
Voter fatigue is not only real, it is healthy for democracy. We are not supposed to live in one-party states.
The Alberta Progressive Conservative dynasty is an anomaly that has now taken three leaders in the past eight years to sustain, with Jim Prentice the early favourite to try to extend a wobbling 43-year reign, which is hurting for support and donors. The Ontario Progressive Conservative unbroken rule from 1943-85 is a product of a bygone era.
When the time comes, leadership changes rarely work. Ask Kim Campbell, who took the torch from Mulroney and left the proud federal PCs without official party status in 1993. Similarly, John Turner presided over a Liberal collapse after taking over from Pierre Trudeau in 1984. His quick trip to the polls gave us a Mulroney landslide.
But - and this is what keeps Wynne not only afloat, but still within striking distance of victory - voter fatigue can be turned around when a new leader has enough time to put his or her own stamp on a government and change seems sufficiently scary that the new leader looks like the safer choice.
Wynne has had 16 months. Hudak's job-cutting pledge unsettles many Ontarians.
Alison Redford won an unlikely victory from Wildrose leader Danielle Smith in Alberta because Smith just didn't look ready for prime time, a woman who seemed unsure about the science of climate change, who was harbouring a couple of dinosaurs with views on gays and racial diversity that would have embarrassed the province.
A year later in British Columbia, Christy Clark had already been written off by a Liberal party ready to dump her, until a feckless NDP leader Adrian Dix appeared unable to fight back, laying an impetuous mid-campaign decision on voters that raised fears about the province's economic growth. The B.C. Liberal dynasty lives on.
In Quebec this spring, the Liberals under Philippe Couillard were able to shuck the taint of the final Charest years after only 18 months in the political hinterland because Pauline Marois and her Parti Québécois frightened voters.
In the two western cases, Redford and Clark had time, the Alberta leader time to shed a perceived sense of entitlement in her party (which she later succumbed to herself) and the B.C. premier time to put Gordon Campbell's HST flip-flop behind her.
A Wynne victory Thursday would be a lesson to federal Conservatives. With no fresh face in leadership, Harper could only beat down the voter-fatigue monster by painting a move to Trudeau or Mulcair as too scary for Canadian voters to contemplate.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@nutgraf1