Monday, December 05, 2011

Leadership 2012 - Debate 1 Wrapup

Plenty of others have already commented on the NDP's first leadership debate. But I haven't yet seen any that line up with my take on yesterday's chance for candidates to introduce themselves to the country.

To start with, the perceived top-tier candidates generally lived up to their billing. Thomas Mulcair effectively managed both the subject matter and the setting throughout; Brian Topp held serve on the former point and showed some promise that he'll grow into the role of reaching out to the public; and Peggy Nash put to rest any doubts that she can rouse a crowd in English, while leaving a few open questions about her ability to do so in French.

But there was one exception.

I've been careful to avoid docking candidates too many points for having some room to improve in a second language. But in order to win the benefit of the doubt, a candidate does need to sound compelling in his or her more familiar language. And on that point, Paul Dewar suffered in comparison to Nathan Cullen - who seemed more comfortable than any contender other than Mulcair, sounding more confident even in his entirely improvised lines than Dewar did in presenting his own policies.

That made Cullen the candidate who gained the most from yesterday's debate - even if it's an open question whether any amount of personal appeal can overcome his strategic choice to make cooperation with the Liberals the centrepiece of his campaign. But Cullen's ease in front of an audience may end up serving as the dividing line between the NDP's serious contenders and its also-rans - and yesterday, Dewar fell short of the standard.

The other candidate who saw a substantial drop in his standing yesterday was of course Robert Chisholm. In part, that was the result of the same issue as for Dewar: in order to win the benefit of the doubt on a lack of French he needed to outclass his competitors in English, and Chisholm wasn't able to do that. But more importantly, Chisholm provided the few painful moments of what was otherwise a highly professional debate with his attempts to speak French. And nothing can undermine a candidacy based on political smarts and experience faster than getting laughed at on national television for an ill-advised attempt to sound out words in an unfamiliar language.

Meanwhile, the other contenders at least held their own, and may have done more than that. Niki Ashton was effective in both languages, though she'll need to be somewhat more judicious in her use of the "new politics" theme as the debates go on. Romeo Saganash mirrored Nash's pluses and minuses, sounding awkward in English but looking like a top-tier contender in French. And Martin Singh avoided any rookie mistakes in sticking to his preferred themes - making for an introduction that gives him a chance to build up to the later debates.

All in all, yesterday doesn't figure to have been decisive for any candidate's chances in the months to come. But it certainly figures to focus attention on the areas candidates will need to develop as the campaign progresses.

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