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Stop nodding, Dalton!

I watched the leaders’ debate last night not as a journalist—in an office, with other journalists, in stony silence, listening to every word—but in situ, in my home, amid my normal routine. Which is to say, I listened to the first half-hour on the radio while feeding my son his supper in the kitchen and the rest on TV, leaving the room intermittently to help a tired mother deal with a fussy, tired kid. In other words, for parts of the debate I was either listening without watching or watching without listening and constantly multi-tasking but always paying attention.

Here are my subjective assessments:

• On TV, John Tory bears a striking resemblance to Fred Flintstone: same hair, same neck (or lack thereof), same closely set face etched into a very big head.

• Howard Hampton made many good points but spoke so deliberately and stuttered so frequently that it reminded me of watching Ed Broadbent debate in French.

• Dalton McGuinty had a great first half-hour.

• The issue of faith-based schools went away very quickly.

• As the debate progressed, McGuinty was clearly worn down by the attacks from both sides.

• Stop shaking your head, Dalton! And speak up! McGuinty was very courteous, always allowing his opponents to finish what they had to say (Chrétien would never let people get away with that). And while they spoke, he’d look down (avoiding eye contact) and nod his head. Sometimes he’d shake it back and forth (as if to say, “That’s not true”) and sometimes up and down (“You’re absolutely right.”). With the sound off, he appeared to be taking the punches awful hard.

• Tory had by far the best body language of the three. While the other two were at times clearly reading from a script, Tory appeared very at ease. His perma-smirk was a welcome relief from the grave faces of Hampton and McGuinty.

• After it was all over and the producers were rolling the music to cue the end of the broadcast, the three men remained standing at their podiums rather than approach each other and shake hands, which is what the federal leaders do. Sour grapes all around, methinks. This campaign is getting under everyone’s skin.

• Did the promise-breaker accusations finally stick to McGuinty? My impression was yes. He kept saying, “There is more work to be done.” This line is meant to make him appear diligent and hard working. But he said it so often, in response to every issue, and it began to sound like an admission that he’d failed to get anything done.

My lasting impression is that McGuinty undersold his record. While there is much to recommend each of his opponents, there is more than enough to recommend a Liberal second term. Voters will forgive a broken promise if they believe their government has accomplished a few things in the interim. The Liberals have deftly managed some very challenging economic times, made strides in education, health care and urban issues. It’s a record worthy of another four years, but McGuinty didn’t make it look that way.

I have no idea whether or not others share my initial reactions. In any event, I find that it usually takes about 48 hours for debate reactions to settle into some kind of recognizable and traceable pattern. But my guess is that McGuinty’s armour has been pierced, and he will come out swinging a very broad sword over the weekend.

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