Ontario leaders debate: Hudak and Horwath strong - but Wynne ducks fatal blow
PC and NDP leaders show experience against Liberal rookie in only televised debate
If you were expecting the "Fight in 40," the CBC studio in which Tuesday's Ontario leaders debate took place, then you'll be disappointed.
There was no knockdown, no verbal punch that was devastating to any one of the leaders.
So, the question lingers as it did before the 90-minute encounter: what impact will it have on the campaigns of Andrea Horwath, Tim Hudak and, Kathleen Wynne?
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On – as they say in boxing – points, you'd have to give the night to the PC leader.
Hudak was clearly the most relaxed of the three. He seemed to really enjoy the debate. He was well-prepared and, most importantly, he began on message and stayed on message.
He absorbed all the jabs thrown at him by Wynne, but mostly Horwath.
"Your (jobs plan) tough medicine is no Buckley's (cough syrup). It tastes awful but it doesn't work," Horwath quipped.
Hudak got in some of his own jabs at the NDP leader, telling Horwath she had voted with the McGuinty-Wynne Liberals "97 per cent of the time."
To which Horwath quickly fired back: "I don't see a single thing you've been able to accomplish in minority government."
Horwath seeking campaign re-boot
Even being delayed by 15 or 20 minutes at the front door of the CBC Broadcast Centre by a medical emergency after someone fainted did not change her sunny mood, nor did it knock her off her game — though that kind of thing in a tense pre-debate moment could have been a disaster.
Horwath and her party have been stuck in third place since the campaign began, so she had to try a re-boot, late as it is, in the debate, to make it clear to voters that there is a choice and it's not just between parties with "bad ethics or bad math."
She delivered her lines well. She appeared to have re-gained the confidence she had in the 2011 debate, her first as party leader, though it must be said she started strong and sagged a bit as the debate progressed.
But that and her well-scripted, well-delivered lines are unlikely to be game changers in this election, though she may have lifted some sagging NDP spirits.
Wynne on the ropes early
Kathleen Wynne went into the debate as the self-described "rookie" and early on it showed, big time.
The Liberals had carefully laid the ground work for a so-so debate performance hours before it began.
On the CBC Radio program Metro Morning, Liberal cabinet minister Brad Duguid reminded listeners and likely the Liberal faithful that, after all, this was Wynne's first leaders debate and that "people have to be realistic about their expectations."
Wynne appeared tight in the opening round — stumbling over her answer to a viewer's question about "ethics in government," something she and the people who prepared her for the debate surely must have known was coming in some form or other.
But, the best she could muster was "I am so sorry" about the spending of what may well be a billion dollars of taxpayers' money — money that essentially was a seat saver for a couple Liberals in trouble during the last campaign.
Wynne's shaky start was clearly evident to Hudak and Horwath, who pounced in the opening round with a re-working of that now famous Brian Mulroney line to John Turner in the 1984 federal debate.
"You had a choice" to, in this case, say "no" on the gas plants issue, said Horwath.
"Why didn't you just say no?" asked a smiling Hudak.
Wynne's comebacks were not strong, as she accused Horwath at one point of "not telling the truth," while chiding Hudak on the math of his "million jobs" plan, saying it will push Ontario "back into recession."
But neither line, nor any line for that matter, seemed to land a political body blow on either the PC leader or the NDP leader.
Wynne did finally re-gain her form, relaxing about halfway through the 90-minute debate — though the damage was done in that first round.
Will it be fatal? The simple answer is no.
Even Conservative insiders conceded before the debate that they really hadn't "laid a glove on her" in months of attacks inside and outside the Legislature, while Wynne has successfully raised some doubts — even among Tory supporters — about Hudak's readiness to be premier and his jobs plan.
Knowing that Hudak, in a moment of bravado, told Ontarians watching the debate that if he fails — over two terms as premier — to implement his plan or balance the books in two years he'll "resign."
But, even after Hudak's strong debate performance, the Liberals still believe they can make that happen sooner rather than later — on the night of June 12.