French debate: Duceppe looked strong, Harper pretty passive, May surprising

By Harold Jansen on Oct 1, 2008

I watched the French debate tonight (in translation; I'm an Albertan!) and thought it wasn't bad. I really liked the table: I thought it was a lot better than the stuffy podiums and made it feel more intimate and interactive. I usually hate the questions from "average" Canadians, but my favorite moment was actually where the leaders had to say something nice about the leader to their left. It was different and caught my attention.

Anyway, there was definitely no knockout punch last night, but debates are so rehearsed now, we don't really see them any more. I thought Harper was surprisingly subdued last night. Clearly, the strategy was to look prime ministerial. He may have done that, but he was close to being disengaged. I thought he needed to look a little more forceful and he didn't do that. Dion was polite and did all right, but again, I think he probably needed to do a bit better. He probably could have been a little more aggressive. Layton, on the other hand, always comes off as over-eager in debates and he did it again last night. The moderator needed to rein him in repeatedly. That said, he was OK, touching on the usual NDP themes.

I thought Duceppe was strong. He was forceful and focused and went after Harper hard. It's not surprising that he did well. He's always been impressive in the debate format and has a lot of experience. This was his ninth debate and it showed. He knew what he wanted to say and managed to steer things to get in his points.

May was surprisingly good. Her French is pretty bad (I can tell because I can understand it perfectly, never a good sign), but she got in some good lines. She effectively pointed out places where Harper was stretching the truth and got in some good lines. Her dismissal of the Conservatives' climate change plan as fraudulent was very forceful and I liked the line when she chastised Harper for being tough on young offenders while he was busy breaking his own laws. Part of the reason May came across as good is that the expectations were so very low. The Greens aren't particularly relevant in Quebec, but she showed that she added something to the debate.

Did the debate fundamentally change anything? I don't think so. What was interesting is that the four opposition leaders all had Harper in their sights; there was little in the way of infighting between them. It shows that they are all concerned with the Conservatives being on the brink of a majority. I don't think Harper did enough to overcome his party's shaky week in Quebec; Duceppe probably shored up Bloc support. Dion performed reasonably well in his first debate, but didn't do anything to revive Liberal fortunes in Quebec. An interesting evening, but nothing that fundamentally altered the political landscape in Quebec.

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