By HEATHER SCOFFIELD
Globe and Mail Update
Ottawa When Stockwell Day held up a magic-markered sign saying "No 2-tier health care," decorum disappeared from the studio where political spinners sat watching last night's debate.
"The agenda of respect is out the window," sniped Peter MacKay, the popular Progressive Conservative MP brought in from Nova Scotia to plug for his party.
Mr. Day was breaking the rules, and even his own advisers groaned audibly when he produced the crudely handmade sign. He hadn't consulted with them about the prop, and they knew immediately it was a bad idea.
An apologetic spin doctor from the Canadian Alliance played down the incident. "Everyone is breaking the rules. There are only supposed to be two spinners for each party in this room and some parties have three or four."
Up till then, everyone was on message and sticking to the plan. As expected, Mr. Chrétien was defensive as four other politicians ganged up on him. But he had managed to make a few points of his own, too, about the government's record on health care and on erasing the deficit.
He had missed one opportunity early in the evening, his advisers admitted. The abortion topic came up, and Mr. Chrétien failed to attack Mr. Day about the confusion in his party's stand on the issue. But the blunder, the advisers said, was minor, and the Liberal strategists remained relatively calm.
Conservative Leader Joe Clark was on track, intervening with witty one-liners, alternating his criticisms between Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Day, and generally making his points clear. Even the spin doctors from the Liberals and the Alliance admitted that the Tory Leader put in a strong performance.
Both Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and New Democratic Party Leader Alexa McDonough stuck dutifully to their plotted strategies, Mr. Duceppe stressing benefits for Quebec, and Ms. McDonough harping on health care and investment in social services.
For the first 45 minutes of the two-hour debate, the spin doctors from all five parties mainly kept their thoughts to themselves and were generally content with the way things were unfolding.
But then, Mr. Day's renegade sign popped up.
"We had to be very clear with the Prime Minister. We had to spell it out for him," said one slightly sheepish Alliance staffer.
The grumbling in the room erupted into outright catcalls, and the spin doctors began barking at the television broadcasting their employers' comments into the room.
"The Alliance Leader is being a bad boy," said an NDP strategist.
All five leaders had agreed beforehand that they were only allowed to bring in their briefing notes, and nothing else.
But the stakes were high for the Canadian Alliance in the English debate, and Mr. Day had carried himself very well during the first half — probably too well for everyone else's liking.
As the second hour of the debate drew to a close the tension among the spin doctors deepened as they considered the failed opportunities of their leaders.
An NDP strategist felt Ms. McDonough was ignored by the moderator too often because she wasn't loud enough to get noticed.
A Tory said Mr. Clark should have gone at Mr. Day with stronger comebacks, especially when the Alliance leader tried to portray Mr. Clark as yesterday's man. "I wish Joe had pointed out he is the one who has been consistent for 30 years while Day flip-flops every 30 seconds."
The Alliance spinners put on smiles and contrasted their own grins to the tense and worried body language of one of the Liberals.
Mr. Day had a lot on the line last night, and his staffers felt he performed well. He needed to introduce himself to Central and Eastern Canada, explain his policies to a coherent fashion, all while attacking the Prime Minister's record without seeming too argumentative.
Party strategists wanted him to be a lot more forceful than the night before during the French debates, when Mr. Day kept a surprisingly low profile. And they wanted him to concentrate almost exclusively on Mr. Chrétien, focusing on themes of government waste, arrogance, secrecy and patronage.
But the main aim was to take advantage of a national stage — unfiltered by the media — that would allow Canadians to get to know the new leader better.
"We had a great day. He was in the game from the get-go," said one Alliance official.
As for Mr. Chrétien, his strategists wanted him to try to avoid looking too defensive, but not lash out too harshly at his opponents, showing them some respect.
While his supporters said he achieved all of that and more, they were clearly deeply annoyed by Mr. Day.
"I think he started out well, but he found himself degenerating," said one Liberal strategist. "He was incredibly mean-spirited. He was trying to come across as cuddly, and he certainly didn't do that."
With reports from Jeff Sallot, Daniel Leblanc and Campbell Clark