VICTORIA - Not a bad leader's debate night in Vancouver, although I did feel a bit of a loser spending my Friday evening in front of the television.
Nobody scored a big breakthrough, nobody stumbled badly, but I'd call it a better night for Stephen Harper and Jack Layton than it was for Paul Martin.
They had much easier jobs.
For Harper, the challenge was not to look like an angry right-winger. He mostly succeeded, at least after the first few minutes. The debate relied on taped questions from Canadians. The first one came from a mother with a lesbian daughter, who wanted to know what the parties would do about same sex marriage.
The other three leaders said the issue is one of fundamental human rights and the decision has been made.
Harper offered his new position that while he would allow a free vote on same sex marriage, he would not use the charter of rights' notwithstanding clause to force a ban on same sex rights.
As Martin pointed, it's a foolish position. The charter protects the right to same sex marriage. The free vote is meaningless without a commitment to go the next step and over-rule the charter.
But aside from that, Harper did well. His plan to cut the GST came across as simple and progressive compared with Martin's less coherent defence of other tax cuts. Harper got a great break because the question on the issue came from a disabled woman whose income was so low she paid no taxes. A GST cut would help her, she said, but an income tax reduction would make any difference. It's a strong platform item.
And Harper effectively defended the idea of giving money directly to parents for child care. It's not good policy, directing hundreds of millions of dollars to affluent families whose children are already receiving excellent care. But it was much more concrete than NDP and Liberal commitments to send more money to provinces to create child care spaces.
Across most issues, Harper sounded reasonable, his most important objective. Even on health care, Martin couldn't effectively raise doubts about the Conservatives' stance on issues like the increased role of private companies.
Layton also had an easier job. He wisely made it clear the NDP has no expectation of forming even a minority government. Elect New Democrat MPs, he said in a variety of ways, to make sure the other two parties don't run amok and reward their friends and backers. He hit issues like long-term care, and made a strong pitch for a better deal for new Canadians, a position that will help in close urban races in B.C.
And he wisely focused most of his criticisms on Martin, recognizing that the NDP needs to woo away Liberal voters.
Martin didn't do terribly, especially because he was the consistent target.
But his biggest challenge was to convince voters that the Liberals had something new to offer, and had learned from their mistakes. Faced with the sponsorship scandal, the best Martin could do was to continue to insist only a few people were involved, and note that he had quickly called the Gomery inquiry. It's not likely enough to ease dissatisfaction.
And Martin couldn't isolate Harper as too cozy with the Americans.
B.C. viewers who hoped a Vancouver debate might mean more attention to the province's issues were disappointed.
The other three leaders accused Martin of being slow to raise the softwood issue, and even slower to help companies hurt by the tariffs. Layton criticized the sale of Terasen to a U.S. corporation. And there was talk of the Pacific gateway. But there was nothing to convince voters that any one party would represent B.C. voters most effectively.
Harper likely convinced voters that he's not so scarey, and Layton made the NDP seem a credible option as a third party. That makes them the winners.
Footnote: Gilles Duceppe did fine, although he is largely irrelevant in these debates. He did offer the other leaders a missed opportunity when he said issues like same sex marriage shouldn't be revisited again and again once the vote has been held. No one noted the same could be said for Quebec sovereignty after two referendums.