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Andrea Horwath: No Substance?

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With the kick-off to Ontario's 40th general election on Oct. 6, The Huffington Post Canada kicks off its coverage with lively, ongoing debates between three of the smartest and most plugged-in politicos in the province: John Duffy arguing for the McGuinty camp; Jason Lietaer (@jasonlietaer) in Hudak's corner; and Heather Fraser (@ottawafraser) duking it out for Horwath. Check in with HuffingtonPost.ca every weekday for the freshest and best election coverage on the web.

Heather Fraser (NDP):

So it's the morning after the night before. Post game analysis. I'm feeling pretty good about the results.

Andrea Horwath did a great job in her first leaders debate. She positioned herself very well with respect to Tim Hudak or Dalton McGuinty and showed Ontarians that there is a real choice for change that puts people first. In the old days of figure skating judging, there were marks for technical merit and marks for artistic impression. Horwath scored will in both. She had an excellent command of her facts and kept well to her message. She scored even higher perhaps in artistic impression because of her humour, warm smile and sassy presentation style. All in all a good night.

I was surprised that McGuinty didn't do better. We all understand that it's not all "sunshine and apple pie" when you are premier. But I thought he would exude more confidence when defending his record. Instead, he seemed nervous, even fidgety. Best tweet goes to @ivortossell who said "Dalton McGuinty's hands are moving forward, together."

I thought Hudak did fine, but too much an insider and politician and still not enough of a Main Street approach. I thought he had a couple of good lines that fit with his narrative but I am not sure that it was enough to propel him forward and make people comfortable with him.

My favourite line was in reference to Mr. McGuinty's opportunistic cancelling of the Mississauga gas plant and Horwath quipped, "What changed is there's an election." It was a good, strong, fun moment. According to Ipsos Reid,

"Andrea Horwath... made the biggest impression on Ontarians as 67 per cent say they have an improved impression of her as a result of the debate, while just 10 per cent say their impressions worsened, representing a net score of +57, effectively making her the real winner of the debate. By comparison, Jack Layton's net improvement score in the English-language federal debate was +41 points, and +42 in the French-language debate."

I'll take that.

Let's see what tomorrow brings.

John Duffy (Liberal):

Well, today is the kind of day when everybody like Heather, Jason and me set about busily explaining why our candidate did the best out of last night. I don't want to disrupt the party, so here's why I think Mr. McGuinty got the best of it. Fundamentally, the case for change was not made in a way that added up to a compelling reason for enough people to dump a sitting premier at this moment in time. I've seen wounded incumbents brought to bay in debates, presaging defeat at the polls, and that wasn't what I saw last night or in the coverage this morning. Absent that case carrying, Mr. McGuinty stays as premier.

What was most interesting to me was the opportunity that each of the opposition leaders missed to make a broad case for change. Mr. Hudak has an appealing platform, carefully designed and market-researched to within an inch of its life. It's not perfect (I've written platforms, and no one knows better than drafters how disjointed, slapped-together and mangled they are), but as these things go, it's perfectly serviceable.

The Changebook is certainly enough to run on, but Tim Hudak didn't last night. Instead, he spent the whole evening dissecting Mr. McGuinty's shortcomings and disappointments. At one point after 7 p.m. he said "change" -- the word his entire campaign is wrapped around -- and I realized he hadn't said it practically all night. I can still remember Mike Harris drilling his finger onto the Common Sense Revolution booklet and feeling, as a Liberal, the footfalls of doom. None of that from Mr. Hudak last night and consequently, not much lift for him trying to come across as next week's premier. (I'll be analyzing the PC platform tonight on The Agenda: With Steve Paikin, so maybe I can bang my forefinger into a booklet just for old times' sake.)

Similarly with Ms. Horwath. She, too, has a well-designed platform, and she at least spent a little more time than Mr. Hudak speaking to its promises. But again, most of her evening was passed lambasting Mr. McGuinty for a series of ills, real or imagined. (Her depiction of the broken health system seemed quite out of step with what we know about Ontarians' perceptions of their experiences with the system in the past few years.) Here's the problem -- we have Question Period for that, and people hate it.

This brings me to your very stretched analogy, Heather, with last spring's federal debate and the late Mr. Layton's strong performance. Yes, my friends at Ipsos Reid have an interesting datapoint about how surprised folks were with Ms. Horwath's performance. And yes, it looks comparable to their measure of the surprise that greeted Mr. Layton's. But let's understand that positive debate impressions have a long road to travel before they turn into voting intentions. Mr. Layton's English debate performance helped him burst past a very weak Liberal campaign that was bearing an elusive message under a rookie leader who was clearly struggling and whom many voters believed had great problems with candour, sincerity and motive. In so doing, Mr. Layton broke loose a chunk of support that oscillates between the Liberals and the NDP. He did so in part by his performance, and in part by exploiting a situation where it was growing clearer by the day that Mr. Harper would be re-elected, leaving those swing voters to choose which opposition leader they wanted to see: an authentic, positive NDP one, or a strained and uncertain Liberal.

None, repeat, none of these factors obtain in today's Ontario context. Liberals are in contention for power. They have a message which is well understood. Their leader is a proven commodity who is generally regarded as sincere, and who is strongly associated with sound management in tough times. Unless Ms. Horwath can find ways to overcome those barriers, a respectable debate performance of the kind she registered last night simply won't put many votes in the box for her. So please, no more oranges-to-apples debate comparisons, unless it's to say that the oranges had a good outing federally, but the red apples are going to come out ahead in Ontario next Thursday.

Jason Lietaer (PC):

Up until this year, I have been rarely surprised by debates. They usually do not have any big surprises, momentum shifts or defining moments.

Heather started off talking about the federal debate, in which Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton both performed very well. That night in April, it was very clear to most pundits that Mr. Harper had performed well. Most said he won. It wasn't until a number of days later that everyone realized just how well Mr. Layton had done vis-a-vis Mr. Ignatieff. Over the days and weeks following any debate, this stuff usually becomes very clear.

The surprise of that federal debate was just how poorly Mr. Ignatieff did. He had a long history of public intellectual discourse, but came up flat. I was reminded of this last night when I watched Mr. McGuinty. I expected him to be polished, ready and in control. He was not. And I wasn't just talking about the hand movements.

I don't agree with John that Mr. McGuinty was the only leader presenting a "positive" plan. In fact, the opposite. I believed he spent a lot of time on defence, explaining his policies and decisions. On the health care segment, for example, he was stuck for nearly five minutes explaining eHealth. Probably not how he drew it up.

On the issue of the ballot question and the terms of engagement for the last week of the campaign, the McGuinty team seem to have shifted their ballot question. It used to be about some amalgam of health and education. Not so any more. It seems to be some made up on the fly question about managing the economy in tough times. Not a traditional Liberal strength.

Anybody remember Mr. McGuinty talking about his supposed strength -- education -- last night? No talk about full day kindergarten. Not much talk about schools. A little talk about post-secondary, but not much. That's the true measure of any debate -- were you talking about your issues? Mr McGuinty was not for most of the night.

Ms. Horwath did well. Much improved from her performance on Friday. She was poised and on message, and I think most Ontarians saw her as genuine. Her ideas all sound great until you start to cost them, but that's not the biggest issue in any debate. Details don't win, impressions do.

Which leads me to Mr. Hudak, and what was his biggest challenge going into the debate. He needed to prove to Ontarians that he can be premier... that he could be on the same stage with Mr. McGuinty and hold his own. By any measure, he did. I don't buy John's assertion that Mr. Hudak didn't talk about his plan. At one point, some of my friends were emailing me and asking why they were hearing about Mr. Hudak's five point job plan for the third time. Repetition works.

Were there any defining moments? Like the federal debate in the spring, sometimes you don't know for a while. I have to say, though, that I was pretty happy with two exchanges. The first was when Mr. McGuinty said he wouldn't raise taxes again and Mr. Hudak responded with the line of the night: "Mr. McGuinty, why would anyone believe you anymore?" The second was the exchange on the Mississauga powerplant where the premier was asked for details and dodged, weaved and stonewalled. Frankly, I was stunned that McGuinty was so unprepared for the question after getting beat up for three straight days on the issue. Just no answers.

Now it's a race to the end. It's going to be interesting, with tons of outcomes possible. Ontario has some decisions to make.

John Duffy, political strategist for the Ontario Liberal election campaign, is also the founder of StrategyCorp and author of author of 'Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada.' Jason Lietaer, the Hudak campaign's communications director, is also the vice president of public affairs of Enterprise Canada. Heather Fraser, representing the NDP, is the director of communications for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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