There's already been some coverage of the first Saskatchewan NDP leadership debate which took place Saturday night (link to come once the video is available). But I'll take a few minutes to add my observations - which will mostly stick to the differences around the edges, rather than the broad effectiveness of the candidates in discussing progressive themes.
Cam Broten got the first opportunity to speak, and made the most of it - pairing an effective discussion centred on his answer to the question of why he's running with effective command of the room. And he kept up that pattern through most of the policy discussions.
However, Broten did leave some question as to his adaptation to the debate as it developed. Most notably, Broten's closing statement consisted largely of an exhortation to take the challenges facing the party seriously - but that message of urgency was followed with a reference to a policy which had come under significant fire as lacking substance (his plan for a process to develop a strategy to facilitate greater involvement by women).
I'm not sure whether that combination represented a matter of sticking too closely to a pre-written script, or a questionable reading of the debate as it progressed. But either way, any doubt about Broten's ability to respond to developments in the heat of a debate figures to complicate his pitch that he's substantially better prepared to deal with a leadership role than his competitors.
The second candidate to speak was Ryan Meili, who easily put to rest my question as to whether he'd be left out on the policy front in a campaign where he's signalled an intention to leave detailed platform announcements until later on. Indeed, Meili stood out both in offering big ideas (such as a Bank of Saskatchewan to go with the familiar SaskPharm theme), and in talking bluntly about the causes of a lack of women in politics as in other leadership roles.
But while Meili's content more than kept pace with the field, his presentation didn't match up as well. Unlike in the 2009 campaign, all three of Meili's opponents are powerful, polished speakers - making Meili's soft voice, fast pace and occasionally distracting movements stand out in comparison (to the detriment of his substantive message). And while Meili's message about practicing more authentic politics offers an easy explanation for sticking with a speaking style that's more comfortable to him, he may be best served tailoring his presentation more to the benefit of the audience.
Not surprisingly, Erin Weir more than held his own in addressing the policy topics. In particular, the sharpest exchanges of the night were between Weir and Broten on small business taxes and encouraging women's involvement in politics - and Weir ultimately got the better of both arguments.
However, Weir's effectiveness in delivering prepared statements lagged behind his skill speaking off the cuff. Weir's opening consisted mostly of a recitation of his campaign biography, without much by way of theme or narrative to pull in the audience. And his closing was framed around a challenge against the other candidates on trust - which seemed highly counterproductive to the extent it effectively questioned the judgment of other candidates' supporters.
Finally, Trent Wotherspoon delivered an effective if unspectacular performance. He may have been helped by a format which didn't offer much room for competitors to press him with follow-up points, but Wotherspoon had little trouble with the follow-up questions posed by moderator Mitch Diamantopoulos, and also took plenty of opportunities to echo and co-opt other candidates' policy proposals and themes (again a smart strategy given the need to cultivate down-ballot support).
On the balance, my impression is that Meili and Wotherspoon likely helped their positions somewhat, while Broten and Weir may not have accomplished as much as they'd have hoped. But the most important message for the candidates to take away from Saturday's debate is that there's plenty of room to grow during the course of the leadership campaign - and I'll hope to see that growth manifest itself both among the candidates and within the party by the time the NDP's debate circuit makes its return to Regina.
Update: See Scott's observations as well.