Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Harper has a good TV night, Martin falls short

VICTORIA - Stephen Harper should sleep more soundly after the big debate.
And for Paul Martin, more restless nights.
The whole winner-loser commentary on debates is a bit of a mug's game.
But if you look at what the leaders needed to achieve in this week's TV debate, Harper had the best showing. (Except perhaps for Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, but he's irrelevant in an English-language debate.)
Martin, who needed to rescue a faltering campaign, couldn't shake off the big liabilities he's dragging along behind him.
Debates are mainly chance to take a quick measure of the person, and to contrast the media image with a somewhat twisted form of reality. (The leaders are wearing make-up, and have spent hours rehearsing. Bright lights are shining in their eyes and they're talking to a camera lens. It's not a normal setting.)
That makes it an advantage to enter the debate as the underdog. The lower the initial expectations, the easier it is to surprise people with your insight or warmth.
Stephen Harper is still an unknown quantity for many Canadians. All he really needed to do was show up, avoid big mistakes and reassure people that he isn't a maniac anxious to arm Canadians, gut the health care system and make heterosexual marriage a legal obligation.
Harper succeeded, especially with the people who matter. By now each party has a firm base, people who won't be swayed by the debate. The leaders' target audience is the 30 per cent of voters who are uncommitted or wavering.
Harper didn't seem crazy. (It is a great advantage to start a debate knowing that you win if you don't seem nuts.) He didn't hide from his views, and acknowledged Canada's diversity. He didn't shout. He didn't seem the obvious bogeyman the Liberals had claimed in their attack ads. Mission accomplished.
Martin had a much bigger challenge, and he couldn't meet it. The sponsorship scandal was like a yoke on his rounded shoulders. His commitment to health care waiting list reduction was mocked, as the other leaders pointed out that inadequate federal funding under the Liberals had helped create those waiting lists.
Martin had the huge task of convincing voters that he would be a strong and decisive prime minister, delivering a clear - and different - type of government. But ultimately he appeared to offer more of the same, and that is not what many voters want.
Jack Layton had a tough job as well. He tried to convince people that the Conservatives would be very bad for Canada, while dissuading them from the obvious conclusion that they should thus vote Liberal to block Harper. That would have required a huge leap in the perceived credibility of the NDP. It didn't happen.
What now?
The Conservatives just have to keep doing what they they are doing, targeting their efforts more and more specifically to close ridings.
The Liberals need to rethink a campaign gone wrong.
The attacks on Harper as a social conservative have not worked, and the debate should confirm that they won't. He's to the right of many Canadians, to use that somewhat arbitrary characterization. But he's no more extreme than lots of the people most voters know and work with.
Harper looked weakest on fiscal policy - what governments take in and how they spend it.
The Conservative plan calls for tax cuts and more money for the military and health care. Harper says he won't cut spending in other areas, just slow the growth.
But Martin argued that the plans will leave a $50-billion shortfall over the next five years, and the Conservatives will be forced to make significant cuts. It's a good issue for the Liberals to push in the coming days. And it will find the most receptive audience in critical B.C. and Ontario ridings, where provincial government tax cuts have raised awareness of the risks.
But for now, Harper has become the favorite.
Footnote: Not much for B.C. in the debate. A passing reference to the softwood lumber dispute, but nothing on treaties, or First Nations generally, or energy policy. Not even a token reference to the broader issue of Western alienation, which Martin had said was a major concern before the campaign began.

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