Tuesday, December 04, 2012

#skndpldr - Saskatoon Debate Notes

I'll continue my look at the Saskatchewan NDP leadership debates with a review of the first Saskatoon forum:


And I see a few interesting developments beyond those mentioned in Scott's detailed series of posts.

To start with, as I pointed out when the federal NDP introduced candidate-to-candidate questions as part of its federal campaign, the opportunity to ask questions of one's competitors figures to be an ideal opportunity for a leadership contestant to handle one of the key roles of an opposition leader. But Trent Wotherspoon looks to be using the question periods for a rather different purpose.

Instead, his questions and follow-up points through the debates available online have consisted of relative softballs lobbed toward Cam Broten and Ryan Meili. Which does nothing to address questions about Wotherspoon's sparring skills - but might well be effective in getting supporters of other candidates to see him in a positive light.

One might expect to see that choice by Wotherspoon to try to stay above the fray paired with sharp questions directed toward him - which was the pattern faced by Thomas Mulcair as the presumptive front-runner in the federal party's leadership campaign. But even in the wake of his difficulty with a relatively simple question about his own policies in the second debate, Wotherspoon didn't face any significant test from his fellow candidates.

That might speak to some disagreement between the candidates as to whether Wotherspoon is in fact ahead of the pack, with Wotherspoon adopting a front-runner's strategy even as the other candidates see Broten and Meili as the more important opponents. (Or it could simply reflect a choice to challenge Wotherspoon more closely once the campaign is drawing more public attention.) But it could easily work to Wotherspoon's advantage if he's able to appear more positive on both sides of each question period as a result.

Meanwhile, each of the other candidates engaged in some more direct clash - and each came away with mixed results.

The most interesting exchanges were those between Cam Broten and Ryan Meili. In response to an audience question, Broten did well to point to inequality as the main challenge arising out of Saskatchewan's current economic situation. But when pressed by Meili, he was light on specifics as to what he'd do to address that inequality - leaving an obvious need to address the gap between intentions and associated policies, but also an opening to develop those policies as the campaign progresses.

Meanwhile, Broten's question to Meili about his intentions if he didn't win the leadership led to the most noteworthy single answer of the night. I don't recall Meili often speaking publicly about not being welcome among the party's inner circle after the 2009 leadership campaign, but he was remarkably candid in making that point. And Meili's response looks to turn any question about the aftermath of the previous campaign back on Broten (or any other candidate) who would prefer not to have to defend Dwain Lingenfelter's tenure as leader.

However, Meili fell into somewhat of a trap of his own in trying to bring Erin Weir into the discussion. While his direct question on team-building gave rise to a productive conversation, his policy challenge to Weir's child care plan fell flat - mixing a nebulous "made in Saskatchewan" message with an easily-answered concern about the assumptions underlying Weir's costing. And not surprisingly, Weir was ready with a strong response defending his own plan - though in refuting a couple of Meili's points, he missed the chance to discuss the economic benefits of freeing parents to choose whether to participate in the workforce.

All of which is to say that for all the common content from one debate to the next, we may be seeing some strategic choices which will significantly shape the balance of the leadership campaign - as well as some lessons which the candidates are still learning as the debates continue. And since the debates look like the best opportunity to see how the candidates see themselves in relation to each other, I'll keep reviewing them closely as they become available.

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