Thoughts on the 2014 Ontario Election Debate: Hits and misses

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I settled in for yet another political debate, filled with hopes and worries. The candidates – Tim Hudak, Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath – all delivered on both counts. It was often entertaining and each candidate managed some important hits and misses.

I began the debate night by hoping – on Twitter – that each leader would do something to surprise and delight viewers. I came away largely disappointed. Andrea Horwath never admitted she was unprepared to call the election and never introduced a new idea. Tim Hudak never admitted his math was wrong and the others never challenged him nearly enough on it. Wynne did apologize a few times for the misdeeds of her former boss. I’m not sure it worked, however. The fact she was part of the senior management team in the party hurt her tonight and her two opponents were unrelenting in this attack.

I also gave each candidate some last-minute advice – also via Twitter – just before the broadcast started. I advised Wynne to loosen up her voice, arms and hands; relax and make the audience comfortable with her. It didn’t happen. Her body language, attire and hair were as tight and unsettling as ever.

I advised Andrea Horwath to act like a premiere; challenge the opponents but also have a plan – a vision – to promote. This sort of happened. She was premiere-like when – and only when – she was able to insert herself into the debate. When she spoke, she often scored well. She didn’t speak enough, though, and she smiled nervously when she was on the attack.

I advised Hudak to smile a real smile. “Look like when you see your newborn in the morning.” He was better than on the campaign trail, but the smile still seemed forced and when accompanied by folksy stories about grandparents or bizarre stories about nights with the Premiere in her office, it was all just a bit too creepy. He was, in my opinion, over-coached. He also, though, avoided any direct hits, even though his policies have been so volatile.

So what worked?

Horwath did best when she was focused on a more progressive vision for the province and when she focused on the similarities between the PCs and Liberals.

Hudak did best when he was softening the perception of the 100,000 job cuts in the public service – drawing attention to attrition as the source of many of those cuts. He also stayed right on message: a simple, clear message. Nobody was persistent enough to get him off.

Wynne did best when talking about transit across the province – her knowledge of the facts far exceeded that of her opponents.

What perhaps struck me most is that neither Wynne nor Horwath was able to draw enough attention to the fact that Hudak’s numbers on job creation simply don’t add up. Wynne, in particular, needed to hammer home at the lack of credibility in his central promise. She didn’t because she was on the ropes much of the time.

In the end, after 90 minutes, I feel Wynne lost a little and the other two may have gained a little from the debate. But then, the vote is not for another week or so, which is plenty of time for people to forget or reconstruct what happened in the debate.

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