The participants were well-behaved, the moderating by Steve Paikin was subtle and effective, and the debate itself rather substantive — as far as 90-minute debates go.
But the one and only Ontario provincial leaders' debate seems unlikely to cause any great swing in voting intentions in the final week of the campaign.
Generally running neck-and-neck in the polls, the debate provided an important opportunity for both Kathleen Wynne and Tim Hudak to either solidify their support or knock their opponent down a peg or two. The latter was probably not accomplished by either, but there was little that should send either of their supporters fleeing.
Wynne carried most of the debate but got off to a rough start on the topic of ethics. As both Hudak and Andrea Horwath went after the Liberal leader primarily for what Dalton McGuinty did in his 10 years in office, Wynne was forced to carry the former premier’s legacy. She could only apologize so much, and it was a very difficult segment for her.
But as the night wore on she got much better, and by the end seemed to be the most natural of the three leaders on the stage. She clearly knew her files. The section of the debate surrounding jobs and the economy was probably her best, and should likely do her good.
Hudak set his own bar very low right from the start, saying he would not give the best performance. That was only half true, as he was by far more polished than either Wynne or Horwath. But that is not necessarily a good thing.
Hudak told stories throughout the night but it only increased the appearance of looking very rehearsed, and thus insincere, a problem that has plagued him ever since he took over the PC leadership.
That rehearsal did manage to keep him to his talking points and on message, however, far better than either Wynne or Horwath. He spent most of the night going after Wynne, starting with the gas plants right from the start. His tone was quite harsh, but in this he may have channelled much of his base with his scolding of the Liberal leader. He did not pursue Horwath very often, but when he did — on green energy and the NDP's support for it — it may have scored points in the southwest, where the two parties are going head to head.
With her party unable to build any momentum as the campaign reaches its final stage, Horwath needed to have the best performance. She was unable to deliver. Though she held her own and had the best line of the night by telling voters they don’t have to choose between "bad ethics and bad math," she had difficulty imposing herself and looked the least comfortable in a debate that seemed to largely set Hudak and Wynne against each other.
Horwath kept her pressure mainly on Wynne, rather than scaring people away from the Tories and towards the Liberals. When she did go after Hudak, it was primarily to scoff at his plans rather than raise fears about them.
Green Party leader Mike Schreiner was not invited to the debate, but his absence was hardly felt considering the topic of the environment was never raised.
It was a spirited debate, and despite some ups and downs the three leaders all performed moderately well. No one had a catastrophic night and no one scored the knock-out punch, which suggests we might expect the polls to continue to show the close, inconclusive race they have recorded since the start of the campaign.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.