09/27/2011 05:57 EDT | Updated 11/27/2011 05:12 EST

Will Tonight's Debate Be McGuinty's Game-Changer?

Jason Lietaer (PC): Dalton Mcguinty's trying to make a difficult case: that things are going to get tougher and you need the same guy to continue. Do you think McGuinty did a good job under tough circumstances? Vote for McGuinty. If you think that his tax increases, high hydro rates and waste made a bad situation worse? Vote for one of the other options.

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 every weekday for the freshest and best election coverage on the web.

Jason Lietaer (PC):

Well, it's the big night.

People will be watching. In some cases, even paying attention.

It's the first real glimpse of the three of them together. The truth is that you don't really know what will happen. The three leaders have spent countless hours back and forth in the Legislature over the last couple of years but this is different. A bigger stage. An audience of more than a few hundred seniors watching the Legislative channel. And perhaps even a spark or two.

It reminds me a bit of the way that baseball used to be, before interleague play. Back a few years ago, the National League and American League teams didn't meet till the World Series (Unless, of course, you are one of the few Canadians who remember the annual Pearson Cup game between the Expos and the Blue Jays). The teams haven't really been on the same field since spring training. One side may be better than the others. But you don't know until it happens.

I've talked in the past of what our side wants to accomplish. Dalton Mcguinty's trying to make a difficult case: that things are going to get tougher and you need the same guy to continue. How you view that question depends on how you view the last few years. Do you think McGuinty did a good job under tough circumstances? Vote for McGuinty. If you think that his tax increases, high hydro rates and waste made a bad situation worse? Vote for one of the other options.

Mr. McGuinty's other challenge is that the facts don't support his economic argument. You can make the convincing case that you did the best you could only if you perform well vis-a-vis your competitors. Mr. Harper made that case in the spring. McGuinty doesn't have the same luxury.

Ontario wasn't just another province hit hard by the recession. Ontario was hit the hardest. Losing 300,000 manufacturing jobs is a big deal, and his strategy to fix that seems to be to tax everyone else to pay for his subsidized "green energy" jobs. But that's unravelling too.

Between his photo op with laid off workers and his abandonment of a half-built power plant this week, the government's energy plans are becoming a laughingstock. That's not good for a man who has staked his re-election on them.

Mr. McGuinty likes to talk about the price of green energy going down, and likens the situation to the high prices of CDs or VCRs when they came into place. Two problems: first, the technology is not that new. I was there when Elizabeth Witmer opened the Toronto exhibition grounds wind turbine nearly a decade ago. And second (and this is key), if prices are going down so quickly, why did the government lock into a 20-year deal?

I wonder if Mr. McGuinty will give the same answer again tonight that he struggled with yesterday. Ten times he was asked to release details about failed power deals. On five occasions he said these words: "That is the subject of continuing conversations.." You can get out of a scrum with that line, although awkwardly. A little different in a debate.

Heather Fraser (NDP):

Indeed it's a big night. The debate is an opportunity to frame the choices for voters going into the final week. It could be a game-changer or it could be more of the same -- it depends on whether or not the leaders play it safe or take some chances.

For Mr. McGuinty, the challenge will be to defend his record against criticism from both the NDP and the PCs. He has not had to defend his record in such a sustained way so far during the campaign. Balancing his new ideas while defending his record will be difficult. I'm still not sure how you campaign for change after eight years in office. McGuinty may choose to play it safe and calm -- like his message of a steady hand to weather a coming storm. But I am not convinced that he won't just come off looking a little boring or worse, disinterested.

Mr. Hudak has to convince voters that he really is a "regular guy" and temper his tendency to be negative. He'll have to go after McGuinty pretty hard to shake loose those Liberal votes and move people to him -- but he has to do it without sounding mean-spirited. That's a tough balance. He'll also have to address what appear to be large holes in his budget, like the $3.9 billion in unnamed savings. People are scared when they're not given all the facts.

Horwath's strategy will be to continue to offer a positive choice for voters. She's got to seize the opportunity to contrast herself with the other leaders and remain true to her personality and show Ontarians who she really is: a fighter, a mom, and a leader who wants to tackle the challenges that are squeezing too many families right out of the middle class.

Over the last eight years Dalton McGuinty has made promises that he hasn't kept; he is disconnected from everyday Ontarians. People are saying that Tim Hudak has a style of politics that many Ontarians can't relate to: his negative, aggressive attitude is not the sort of change Ontario needs. We are going to see this reflected in the behavior of the leaders during the debate.

And if I may be allowed a West Wing reference instead of a baseball analogy: my advice to the campaign team is let Horwath be Horwath.

John Duffy (Liberal):

I'm not looking for a game-changer tonight, but it sounds as though you might be, Jason.

Look, I can sense the PC press on this axis; I'm pretty sure we discussed it about a week ago. My problem with buying it as a game-changer is how much it reminds me of debating in high school (which I've done), as distinct from televised leaders' debates (which I've helped on).

The argument you are making, Jason, is an attempt to rely on one or two data points to unravel a whole fabric that's been built up over a long period of time. Kind of like the old poem: "For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost/and all for the want of a nail."

Now, I've seen this work, as when Mr. Mulroney closed the trap on Mr. Turner in the '84 federal debate. Mr. Turner was trying to show himself as an avenue for change, like Mr. Mulroney. When he led with his chin and got walloped by Mr. Mulroney, people's immense suspicion that Mr. Turner offered no change at all from the Trudeau regime was confirmed at a stroke.

That's not what's on the line here. I don't see Mr. McGuinty's image as a safe pair of hands resting solely on a single point. I don't see Mr. Hudak as an alternative repository of that credibility. And I don't see Mr. McGuinty setting up a pratfall the way Mr. Turner did by going after Mulroney on patronage.

Instead, what I think we'll see is the Opposition leaders taking shots, and the premier handling them.

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.