CBC.ca's Ontario election commentators sat down last night to watch the leaders slug it out in a televised debate. We asked David Docherty and Don Wanagas to compare notes on how the contest played out:
1. Any sign of a knockout punch?
DOCHERTY: None. Nobody landed one, but no one threw one, either. McGuinty was not expected to, anyway, but the pre-debate consensus was that Eves had to try. He had a few jabs, but nothing that came close to taking McGuinty to the mat.
WANAGAS: No knockout punch, but I was afraid Dalton was going to catch someone in the eye with his thumbs, forcing the fight to be called on a technicality before the ringside judges had a chance to consult their scorecards.
2. Was there a clear winner? If not, who gained the most ground and why?
DOCHERTY: There was no clear winner, which is probably why the Liberals can claim victory. If there is anything different about this campaign, it was the pressure on McGuinty to appear statesmanlike. At the end of the 90 minutes, there was little to suggest he was not up to the job. This may have put an end to the Tory strategy of questioning his ability to lead the province.
WANAGAS: Another no. But McGuinty probably solidified his position as the No. 1 contender by staying on his feet for 12 rounds and deflecting most of the jabs thrown at him by Eves. A split decision is better than being disqualified for the illegal use of thumbs.
3. Who lost the most ground and why?
DOCHERTY: Not sure that any of the leaders or parties lost ground. Again, that simply favours the party that goes into the debate leading in the polls. With 15 per cent of the population undecided, there may be some minor swings, but most viewers began the debate with a good idea of who they were backing. Nothing happened that would change that significantly.
WANAGAS: I suspect Eves lost ground simply because he didn't dominate McGuinty and failed to advance the Conservative cause beyond the "Dalton just doesn't get it" mantra that he has employed. He also came across as rather hypocritical when he declared there's no place for personal attacks in the provincial campaign.
4. Which of the leaders looked the best?
DOCHERTY: Howard Hampton. He was the best debater and certainly spoke with one advantage: nobody expects him to win. As a result, he was not constrained by any promises. He could argue that the other two parties will run a deficit without fear that any one would accuse him of doing the same. In addition, with such a differentiated view of auto insurance, it was very easy for him to stake out turf on which the other leaders would be fearful to tread.
WANAGAS: Howard Hampton put on the best show and did a good job of emphasizing the ideological differences between the NDP and the Conservatives and Liberals. But that's not likely to result in a significant improvement in his party's standing in the polls Oct. 2.
5. Any clues from the leaders' body language?
DOCHERTY: What was Eves writing with that blue pen? "Bring home milk, bread?" This was the same type of strategy used by Mike Harris four years ago -- ignore McGuinty and treat him as if he were irrelevant. But it did not work as well this time. Instead, it appeared that Eves wasn't listening, an impression that many Ontarians have had of the Tories for some time.
WANAGAS: McGuinty's hand gestures might have invited some "all thumbs" observations, but he generally looked in control. The Liberal leader was aided in this respect by his position at centre stage. Eves and Hampton both came across as committed and confident, but the NDP leader projected the more forceful image of the two.
6. Was Eves' strategy of pressing McGuinty for "yes or no" answers effective?
DOCHERTY: Somewhat, but the questions he wanted "yes or no" answers to were so lopsided that no one really expected an answer. Are you going to take billions of dollars from Ontarians? Are you against SARS relief? This was obviously a strategy that the Conservatives had worked on, but it was only going to work if McGuinty bit. He didn't.
WANAGAS: For the most part, no. The gambit kept allowing Hampton to jump into the fray with his contention that there's really not a whole lot of difference between the Tories and the Liberals on basic economic policy. McGuinty would invariably respond by holding up planks in the Grit platform and admonishing voters to "choose change."
7. Is McGuinty's performance likely to shore up his lead in the polls?
DOCHERTY: He is unlikely to gain support. Some people may be turned off by the performance of all three leaders, with interjections outweighing actual debate. But at most, this might cause some people to stay home as opposed to switch their votes.
WANAGAS: Probably. A lot of people were watching to see if McGuinty would mess up like he did in the 1999 debate with former premier Mike Harris. He didn't. So it's onward if not upward.
8. What are the chances that Howard Hampton's performance will improve support for the NDP?
DOCHERTY: This may be the exception to comment above. Hampton will not win and everyone knows this; as a result, he may be the beneficiary of disaffected voters angry at the performances of Eves and McGuinty. These folks would not vote NDP if they thought the party would actually win. It will be interesting to see if the Green Party rises above five per cent. They too could be real beneficiaries of undecided voters who did not see anything during the debate to swing them to one of the three traditional parties.
WANAGAS: Hampton may have solidified NDP support. But it's also possible his attempts to portray the Liberals and Conservatives as fellow travellers when it comes to basic economic assumptions may actually help McGuinty's cause, if it convinces undecided centre-right voters there won't be a dramatic swing to the left if the Liberals form Ontario's next government.
9. Based on what you heard, do you believe that Ontario is going to run a deficit this year?
DOCHERTY: Not based on anything that came out at the debate. But Ontario will run a deficit. Adam Vaughn asked the best question of Eves and McGuinty: What are you going to sell in the next five months that is worth $1.6 billion? Neither answered it satisfactorily. However, it did allow McGuinty to fire off a very good line: "Mr. Eves, you are the last person in Ontario who doesn't believe you are running a deficit of $2 billion."
WANAGAS: Considering that the deficit numbers being tossed around emanated from the Tory-friendly Fraser Institute, it's certainly plausible.
10. Were you surprised by any questions or issues that were not raised?
DOCHERTY: Not one mention of welfare or immigration from Eves. The former dominated the debates of four and eight years ago.
WANAGAS: It was surprising that municipal funding issues weren't raised, considering they're so critical to major population centres across the province. You would have figured that an inquisition dominated by Toronto-based journalists would have squeezed in at least one pertinent query. Then again, there was nothing stopping the three leaders from steering their responses to some of the other questions into the realm of a new deal for cities.