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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

McGuinty survives on patience in a debate that history may or may not remember

By ROY MacGREGOR
Globe and Mail
Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2003

In the end, the voters of Ontario were left with only one pressing and unanswered question:How much water can Ernie Eves drink without begging for a bathroom break?A televised political debate rarely has a clear winner. The debates that history tends to remember -- Nixon-Kennedy in 1960, Turner-Mulroney in 1984, Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen's vice-presidential debate in 1988 -- are far more the exception than the rule.

Most are forgotten the day after the media and the pollsters decide what, if anything, happened, and it may well be that the 2003 Ontario debate will join that long list of wasted airtime.

This morning, however, the debate definitely continues.

There is, even in the worst of them, still something about the televised debate that makes watching worthwhile, for it tends to be the singular moment in a modern campaign where the leaders cannot hide behind press releases, scripts, handlers, restricted scrums or, most significantly, no comment. They have to engage -- and anything can happen.

It is still the only reality television worth watching.

This particular viewer came to his television after weeks of travelling about Ontario listening to voters gripe about everything from nuisance bears to nuisance canvassers. It was a journey that could not help but leave a sense that the people of the largest province were running true to the Canadian Political Condition: having grown weary of a too-familiar government, they were ready to put the boots to it.

Politicians don't win elections in this country; they lose them. And Ernie Eves and his Conservatives seemed certain to be on their way out. Eves himself was being dismissed as much for his slick appearance as his policies, while the main benefactor to Eves's sliding popularity, Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, seemed to gain approval less on his policies than on that peculiar flip side to the voter's boot -- the notion of "giving the other guy a chance."

Howard Hampton, the NDP Leader, was simply not on the screen -- at least not until last night, when he was handed the only real chance he will have before the Oct. 2 election day.

And Hampton, to his credit, made the most of his opportunity.

He attacked well, and often, despite the sheer absurdity of a New Democrat turning again and again to the right-wing Fraser Institute to shore up his points on the taxation plans of his two opponents.

Hampton spoke with passion, sincerity and with good grasp of such issues as power, the only point of concern for his image-makers the small drops of Al Haig sweat that appeared on his upper lip during the final minutes.

Almost as surprising, at least to this casual viewer, was the performance of Eves. He seemed, at times, to be the only one of the three having the slightest fun and, if he did indeed have to go to the bathroom, he never once was seen to cross his legs.

Eves actually had McGuinty on the ropes at one point -- hammering away at whether the Liberal Leader had struck a secret deal with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to delay legislation on same-sex marriage until after the Ontario vote.

And yet Eves could not deliver a knockout punch equal to that Brian Mulroney dealt to John Turner when, discussing Turner's controversial patronage appointments, Mulroney lifted a finger and lectured: "You had an option, sir."

Eves came close -- at one point telling a clearly flustered McGuinty that "People expect direct answers to direct questions" -- but he could not finish.

And Eves's chosen finish, in fact, was his weakest moment -- electing to read from prepared text for his closing remarks and awkwardly looking down and away while saying such things as "Today, more than ever, Ontario needs a premier who stands for your beliefs."

McGuinty, of course, had the most to lose, as he is supposedly heading for a landslide victory. He was adequate, but not very good. He was much less wooden than he had appeared in his previous election debate four years ago -- he even made a joke about the kittens the Tories claimed he likes to eat -- but he was still stiff and, at times, seemed reluctant to join in the fray.

He was able to stick to the Bill Clinton trick from the 1992 debate with U.S. President George Bush by continually referring to the incumbent as "Mr. Eves" rather than "Premier Eves."

McGuinty did seem, however briefly, on the verge of a meltdown during the attacks on his purported deal with Chrétien when, after denying, he tried desperately to switch the subject to "immigration."

One suspects that if Eves and Hampton had been allowed by the moderator to keep pressing, a large crack would have appeared down McGuinty's face.

But he survived the onslaught and showed considerable patience throughout the remaining minutes of the debate.

And perhaps, at this point, patience is all that is necessary from here on out.



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