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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Eves' heart didn't seem to be in it

By JOHN IBBITSON
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 23, 2003

Perhaps there was nothing that Ernie Eves could have done last night to reverse the determination of the Ontario electorate to remove him from office. And nothing is what he did.

In a leaders' debate that combined sharp verbal jabs and a fair dose of cacophony, both Conservative and NDP leaders sought to introduce fresh doubt into the voters' minds about Dalton McGuinty's fitness to govern. They failed. Dalton McGuinty will almost certainly be the next premier of Ontario.

The voters remain uncertain about Mr. McG: Though the Liberals lead in the polls by between 15 and 20 points, the support is still soft, even tentative. After all, Liberals have been losing elections in Ontario, with remarkably few exceptions, for almost 60 years.

The Tories believed that last night's leadership debate would give Mr. Eves one last chance to reinforce those doubts, to make the public wonder whether, indeed, Mr. McGuinty is .up to the job of running a province with an economy and population the size of small European country.

Yet, it almost seemed the Premier's heart wasn't in it. Yes, he took his share of jabs at Mr. McGuinty — "Mr. McGuinty is refusing to give you the answer to a direct question," he interjected more than once. "Answer the question: yes or no."

But he kept his vocal inflections in the baritone to bass range, avoided shouting matches, and tried to present a statesmanlike image. This meant that Mr. Eves could never push Mr. McGuinty to the point of committing a serious gaffe. He couldn't get the Liberal leader to stutter, couldn't get him to mix up his numbers (with one amusing but irrelevant exception), couldn't demonstrate that the Liberal Leader didn't deserve the privilege of power.

Mind you, Mr. McGuinty did raise eyebrows on occasion. "You're running on a plan for 1995," he accused Mr. Eves, at one point. "It's 2005. Times have changed." Perhaps they're changing faster for him than for the rest of us.

For the most part, Mr. McGuinty stuck to his message, leaning comfortably against the podium (rebutting any suggestion of nervousness), fending off several potentially dangerous attacks by Mr. Eves and Mr. Hampton, and even getting in a few jabs of his own.

When Mr. Eves accused the Liberals of pandering to teachers unions during a strike, Mr. McGuinty's response was firm.

"This is still more of the same," he retorted. "It's the politics of division: Do what you can to pit one group against another." A hit. A palpable hit.

The debate was important for NDP Leader Howard Hampton as well. His party aspires to the support of one voter in five; he risks getting only one in 10, confirming the New Democrats as a permanently spent force in a province where they once formed a government.

Mr. Hampton put on a good show. He was the first to raise his voice, the quickest to interrupt and he happily flouted the timing rules. He excoriated the Tories' hapless management of what used to be Ontario Hydro, and the general confusion over skyrocketing auto-insurance rates.

Did he improve his chances? Unlikely.

Heaven knows, there were low moments in the debate. They really should air these things after 10 p.m. so that schoolchildren wouldn't see adults interrupting each other all the time. In most households, raising your voice and cutting off your sister earns you a trip to your room.

And the cameras caught both Mr. Eves and Mr. McGuinty consulting their notes at times. You'd think these guys would know their platforms by now.

But the nub of it was this: The debate was supposed to be all about Mr. Eves and Mr. Hampton ganging up on Mr. McGuinty. Instead — proving once again that pundits are the prognosticators of last resort — Mr. Eves was on the defence as much as on the attack. He handled the attacks well, but every minute spent on parry was a minute lost to thrust.

And if Dalton McGuinty still hasn't convinced you that he won't raise taxes and run budget deficits, neither has Mr. Eves likely convinced you that he won't slash government spending and also run deficits.

So if you decided that the time had come to change the government, it's not likely that anything happened last night to make you change your mind.

Which means the evening was Mr. McGuinty's. Now it would seem that nothing stands between him and victory a week and a day from now.



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