The McLoughlin Media team has been very busy in recent days - with yours truly doing the pre-debate and post-debate analysis on CTV with Power Play host Don Martin, and my partner Laura Peck at the same time doing the pre-and post-analysis on CPAC (while also handling telephone calls from viewers with host Peter Van Dusen and the political panel).
So, who won the debates? By any reasonable measure, Stephen Harper won the English debate by staying calm, cool and collected and avoiding any gaffes. According to the Nanos Research post-debate analysis, the numbers for Mr. Harper rose noticeably. However, in terms of best performance - it was clearly Jack Layton who impressed the most - for his attacks on both Harper and Ignatieff and positioning himself as a credible alternative to the status quo. His body language, eye contact and tone of voice were excellent - which was remarkable considering that he was standing on his feet with a broken hip for two hours!
For Michael Ignatieff - even though he came across as too 'hot' for the cool environment - he scored some strong hits on Stephen Harper, although not many of them inflicted much damage. this was due to a tendency to ask three questions at a time, when he needed to focus on one at a time. However, he didn't do himself any damage, and in fact, more than likely gave some badly needed momentum to his campaign.
Gilles Duceppe clearly under-performed in the English debate, compared to previous debates. With the exception of a few good lines, he mostly repeated his attack points, but didn't really score well.
French Debate Analysis
Duceppe was back on solid ground in the French debate as he took on all comers. Jack Layton again performed the best, while Michael Ignatieff's performance improved significantly over the night before's English debate. He was calm, focused and used the camera well to address Quebecers with his vision. Both Ignatieff and Harper side-stepped skillfully the traps that Duceppe laid out - on imposing Bill 101's French-only laws on the currently exempted federally-regulated industries, as an example. Jack Layton was the clear beneficiary again of the debate as he showed he could hold his own against Duceppe's attacks.
Stephen Harper survived the debate without any self-inflicted damage by choosing to mostly ignore Duceppe's attacks. He must have had welts on his tongue as he listened to the former Communist (by his own admission) lecture Harper on Quebec's inability to score more hand-outs to match Ontario's bail-out of the auto industry etc. He refuted him on the issue of helping the forestry sector, but for the most part knew that it would be a mug's game to take Duceppe on directly. However, Harper didn't need to 'win', he just needed to 'not lose' and, even though he under-performed against his English debate, nevertheless that was to be expected. He just needs to hold those 11 Quebec seats and he may well just do that.
For my debate analysis on the English debate which I did for Carol and Paul Mott on the Motts radio show, click here and select 'April 13' podcast.
So What Will this Mean?
The real proving ground for Stephen Harper is Ontario, and he is neck-and-neck with the Liberals. If the Conservatives can grab more seats in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) from the Liberals, that will be a key. [Hence all the focus on the so-called 'ethnic' vote, which is causing a firestorm of accusations about some of the candidates from the Tories and Liberals with questionable backgrounds.]
The second proving ground will be a possible pick- up of several seats for the Tories in Atlantic Canada - in particular from Newfoundland. The Prairie Provinces look solid for the Conservatives, with the NDP holding seats in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. British Columbia, however, appears to hold the key for the NDP and the Tories as they battle over seats. If the NDP get a bounce from Layton's two debate performances it should show up in British Columbia where they have organization, unpopularity of the HST and other issues giving them a potential edge.
Finally, if the Liberals bring back the nearly 1 million Liberals who stayed home last time out under Stephane Dion, they could make a solid gain in seats, thus holding the Conservatives to a minority. If there is some kind of 'scandal' to be unearthed, it could turn into a very close race.
The Helena Guergis Story
Speaking of 'scandal', the 'Helena Guergis Story' ["soon to be a
She chose to avoid the trap of broadening her attack on her Party even though she is in a head-on battle with the highly qualified Dr. Kellie Leitch, the Conservative candidate. That will be an interesting riding to watch on election night. Will this story involve any more collateral damage to Stephen Harper? Probably not directly, but it certainly lost him another day of focus on his message. He made it clear he doesn't want her back, without mentioning her name. The photo of Helena holding her baby Xavier at the news conference will be hard to top, of course. That young boy has a future in politics! His party? To Be Determined.
Heading towards the finish line
As the Speaker has now cleared the way for Auditor General Sheila Fraser to release her final draft of her audit of the G8/G20 spending, expect that to be the hyper-focus for next week. So the momentum could slide against the Tories in the final weeks of the campaign - thus endangering their vision of a majority victory. The Liberals have moved to a thematic of 'fear vs. hope' to get the Tory numbers down. In my view, that won't work, as they have tried the 'scary Harper' theme in previous elections. Remember 'Tanks. In our streets. In Canada.'? Right now the frame is 'fear of the unknown (coalition) vs. 'fear of the known' (Stephen Harper). Stephen Harper has had five years in which he has been defined and the scare tactics rarely work when the public feels they already know him. However, their internal polling probably tells them it's all they've got left in their need to move the dial.
Who will form the Government? 50% chance it could be Ignatieff
If that happens, and the Liberals boost their seats, I believe that there's a 50% chance that Michael Ignatieff would be Prime Minister by the end of June - all without technically violating his promise that he won't have a 'coalition'. He won't need one; he won't need to offer Mr. Layton or Mr. Duceppe a place in his Cabinet.
IF the Opposition brings down the Conservatives on their budget (which they've already said they will), and IF the Governor General were to refuse Mr. Harper's wish to dissolve Parliament and call an election (which is possible given the threat of ongoing elections), he MIGHT be given the chance to gain the confidence of the House. He could do so with a letter of agreement covering a two-year period, without technically being a 'coalition'. And if that were the case, it would be.....Prime Minister Ignatieff. Do you think this is in the back of his mind - and Mr. Harper's? How about the front of his mind? And Michael Ignatieff's for that matter. Why do you think there is such a focus by the PM on getting a majority? The real tip-off will be on May 3rd. If there is no call by Liberals for Mr. Ignatieff's early departure, it will be because the negotiations will already be underway.
So, it's still ridiculously early to predict, but stranger things have happened - such as right after the 2008 election, for that matter - because, hey, welcome to Canada!
See you soon.