In debate format, Wynne can’t run on, or hide from McGuinty’s record

Tim Hudak’s campaign, until last night, was a hot mess.  An accident-prone tour, an ad campaign that wandered from topic to topic and an economic plan that would fail grade 9 math.  The stakes were high for Mr. Hudak going into last night’s debate and the expectations were low.  Many voters might have tuned in simply to have their instinct that he’s not fit to be Premier confirmed.

Instead, he may have stopped the downward momentum of his campaign, and given voters a chance to re-evaluate him.  He was far better at taking down the Liberal record than NDP leader Andrea Horwath and he was, remarkably, allowed to brush off broadsides about his math problem.

Hudak came off as less scary, less radical and less of an amateur than might have been expected.  A win, even if not a virtuoso performance.

For her part, Andrea Horwath seemed to confirm that her third place standing in the polls is warranted.  She is neither a horrible debater nor a gifted one.  But since few think she will be Premier there is a risk that viewers take a mental break when she is talking.  To overcome that, her themes, cadence, poise and performance must hit a higher standard, or she becomes barely noticeable.  Which seemed to be the case last night.

Kathleen Wynne’s night was a moment of reckoning for the sins of Dalton McGuinty.  Without his record hanging around her neck, chances are she would have come off easily as the best choice to be Premier.  She is clearly smart, on top of the policy issues facing the province, and seems more authentic, less packaged than her Tory rival.

But too often, she found herself wounded by blunt attacks on the integrity and trustworthiness of Liberals.  When Mr. Hudak said, more or less, “It’s not a parking ticket.  It’s not a mistake. …they wasted your money to save Liberal seats… If they get away with it they’ll do it again” he touched a nerve.  Ms. Wynne’s “it was wrong…it was bad…I’m sorry” was maybe the best she could do, in the circumstances, but that’s not saying much.  The puck was in her end much of the night, and in the Liberal net several times.

Ms. Wynne needed a night spent attacking and finishing off Mr. Hudak’s credibility as an economic steward, and stoking fears of brutal service cutbacks, labour disputes and economic reversal.  Her forays into this territory were awkward and tepid.

It’s impossible, at this point, to say whether the debate last night will have any lasting effect.  Lots of voters will not have tuned in, and while their views might be affected by follow on coverage and word of mouth, only rarely does this turn into a sustained momentum shift.

To my eyes, Mr. Hudak did well enough to breathe some new life into a struggling campaign, but he still faces a province not in the mood for 100,000 job cuts.  For Ms. Wynne, the best news is there won’t be another one of these debates, because in that format, she knows she can’t run on, or hide from, the record of the McGuinty government.

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

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