At the end, Dalton McGuinty didn't embarrass himself and he didn't eat any kittens, which means that according to the bizarre rules of engagement in these things, he has to be declared the winner.
The winds of fortune have been kind to the Liberal Leader. He's a country mile ahead of everyone else in the polls and he doesn't have a record to defend. All he really had to do was show up for last night's televised election debate among Ontario's political leaders and avoid looking like Mr. Bean. The task was immeasurably tougher for his Conservative opponent, Ernie Eves, who had to show he had the stuff of leadership while acting like an enraged pit bull. Howard Hampton, leader of the New Democratic Party, had it almost as tough -- he had to fight a war on two fronts.
Each did what he set out to do, and performed adequately. Mr. Eves, who had been accused of being too negative, barely acknowledged the Liberal Leader's presence. He focused almost exclusively on the camera in front of him, trying to slip by questions about his party's record in government.
Mr. McGuinty, characterized for being wooden, was a perpetual motion machine. He leaned his elbow on his lectern like a teenager slumped over his dinner. He waved his hands -- particularly his right thumb -- ceaselessly.
And Mr. Hampton? He was his usual energetic, passionate self, arguing for public ownership of almost everything.
But forget all those sporting metaphors about knockout punches or home runs. This was like a chess match, with each move straight out of a guidebook.
The segues were canned. Mr. Hampton looked for every opportunity to turn every discussion into a tirade against privatization.
Mr. Eves sought to angle everything into a review of the tax cuts and economic prosperity that marked the Conservative years.
And Mr. McGuinty tried again and again to make the point that the times had changed and that Ontario could no longer afford tax cuts -- particularly for large corporations.
One exchange stands out to illustrate this dynamic. A reporter in the studio, Heather Hiscox, asked Mr. Eves about the shortage of family doctors in Ontario. He started in on what promised to be a lengthy reply about expanding medical school enrolments, but barely got going before a pell-mell debate actually broke out.
Mr. McGuinty interjected to say that Ontario ranked last in Canada in the number of doctors in Canada, and then picked up on his theme that Tory tax cuts had stripped social programs of needed dollars.
"Why would you choose to give that money to large corporations and private schools?" he asked.
Mr. Eves dismissed him. "You just don't get it," he said, launching into a defence of tax cuts as a way of ensuring economic growth. But he enraged Mr. Hampton when he suggested that Roy Romanow had proclaimed Ontario a leader in such things as establishing community health centres.
"You froze the number of community centres," the NDP Leader thundered across the lecterns to the Conservative Leader.
There was a lot more like that as Mr. Eves was forced to defend eight years of Conservative government. He tried to return fire by pointing out the shortcomings of earlier Liberal and NDP governments, but that didn't alter the way things went. It was, as Mr. McGuinty noted in an entirely different context, a battle between "the poetry of opposition and the prose of government." A Conservative, sitting out this campaign, noted earlier in the day: "In this campaign, so many chickens are coming to roost for Ernie Eves that it looks like a cheap remake of The Birds."
The question is whether any of it matters. It was an important occasion -- we knew that because Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Eves donned suit jackets for one of the few times in the campaign -- and the polls say nearly two-thirds of Ontario voters planned to watch.
But the same polls show, however, that more than 60 per cent of the electorate have believed for months that it's time for a change. Nothing they saw last night is likely to alter their views.