There is an adage among old hands at leaders’ debates that new leaders benefit just by showing up. Ironically, there were three new leaders in last night’s Alberta leaders’ debate.
I thought all four leaders showed very well, in a well-organized, civilized exchange that didn’t get personal—despite the fireworks. For the first time in almost four decades, this was an Alberta leadership debate that really mattered.
Progressive Conservative party leader, Alison Redford, was controlled, well-briefed, with lots of feistiness in her answers. Despite doing very well, she needed to score heavily against the Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith, as Redford carries the burden of forty-one years of one party rule and some damaging missteps as premier.
Unfortunately for Redford, she failed to deliver a serious blow against Smith. Instead, Smith emerged as a likable, folksy politician with lots of common sense that will resonate with Alberta voters. Her roots in the conservative reform tradition showed when she compared the criticism that she faced with that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he first ran at the federal level (I’ll be saying more about this relationship shortly). Smith went unscathed on contentious social issues, and showed well on economic issues. She didn’t appear to have any less experience than the premier. Her debate prep team did an excellent job.
Some of the best lines of the evening came from Liberal leader Raj Sherman. He ridiculed Redford’s “fudge it budget” and Smith’s “Dani dollars” quite effectively. I thought his toughest line was when he reminded Smith that she was running for premier of “Alberta, not Alabama.” His performance was probably good enough to consolidate Liberal vote, which again will hurt Redford. While Sherman and NDP leader, Brian Mason, tried to criticize both “Conservative leaders,” it clearly appeared that the opposition parties would be prepared to work together in a possible minority parliament. Their common refrain that the time for change has come may well be enough to unite them, at least initially, in a minority parliament.
In the end, it is the time-for-change sentiment that will matter most. Supporters of all four parties should be pleased with their leaders’ performances. But with polls suggesting that a majority of Albertans are in a mood for change in government, Smith will probably benefit the most from this debate; indeed, overnight polling by Ipsos Reid suggests this.
Mistakes can happen in campaigns in the last ten days or so. I expect the PCs to try many of the same advertising fear tactics that the Liberals tried on Stephen Harper. But this is Alberta, not Toronto or Montreal—this approach won’t work.
This campaign is now Smith’s to lose.