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Alberta's TV leaders' debate: Alison Redford won -- but not decisively

Alison Redford in April 12 TV leaders debate (screen shot)

I call it for Alison Redford over Danielle Smith.

Like a lot of Albertans who are engaged by this 2012 election campaign as seldom before, I watched last night's Alberta leaders' debate on television pretty closely. And that's the way I scored it: For Alison Redford, leader of the Progressive Conservatives, on points.

But the $64-billion question -- that’s $64,000 in 2012 dollars, accounting for inflation -- is whether Redford's victory was decisive enough to put her over the top in a hard-fought election in which she is coming from behind, possibly from quite far behind.

That is far from clear.

At this point in a campaign that has not gone well for Alberta's Conservative dynasty, and has not gone as expected since Redford called it, a case can be made that the Conservative leader needed a decisive knockdown last night that left her chief opponent, Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith, reduced to rubble on the mat. If that's what was required, Redford didn't achieve it.

All four leaders who were allowed to take part in the debate acquitted themselves well. All four fought a good defensive fight, and hardly anyone laid a glove on anyone else despite attacks that at times were ferocious.

Only two fighters, in my estimation, landed hits that left bruises. Redford did a couple of times on Smith, for example, on the true costs of the promised Wildrose budget-cutting spree -- "you skip over the fact, Danielle, that to balance the budget, you are going to have to cut schools and hospitals. So you may have a balanced budget, and you may be writing people $300 cheques, but their quality of life, and the service they need, will not be better."

NDP Leader Brian Mason, a coolly seasoned old pro, zinged Redford when he maneuvered her into denying the Legislative record in Hansard. He also made the case pretty effectively that if you want a real opposition, you'd better elect some NDP MLAs.

Smith had all her moves memorized, but somehow the sum of her performance added up to less than the whole of its parts. Liberal Leader Raj Sherman performed competently, making some great points -- then reducing them to silliness with rote sloganeering.

That is the kind of stuff the professionals and the spin-doctors will emphasize. Indeed, the pundits hardly saw this fight the way I did. But it’s far from clear that scoring debating points or winning general knowledge quizzes is what really matters in televised leadership debates. And it's rare that the public sees something like this the same way "the experts" do.

What are voters looking for when they tune into a debate on TV -- or, more to the point, when they read journalists' accounts after the fact or, more likely, watch the same highlights replayed over and over again?

If as in tonight's battle there's no decisive knockdown -- "you had an option, sir!" … "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!" -- then they're looking for more subtle qualities, expressions of leadership.

In my highly subjective judgment, Redford and Mason did much better in this regard than did Smith and Sherman. And since we all need to admit the obvious and say out loud that there was really only one fight on the card that mattered -- the one between Redford and Smith -- this could turn out to be important for the Conservatives.

Smith, who face to face is a charming and engaging person, came across to me as smug and glib. She was best when she complimented the other leaders, letting her natural charm do the work. More than once I thought the meanness of her core beliefs shone through. But if she sounded mean to me, she didn't come across as particularly tough, or particularly sharp.

Redford, on the other hand, came across as both tough and smart. I'm no fan of Margaret Thatcher, but you have to admit Lady Thatcher had her moments, and, by God, there were times last night when Redford reminded me of the Iron Lady.

The more important of the two qualities, in my estimation, was her steely toughness. I've thought for a long time that most voters don't particularly care if their leaders are nice guys, or even if they're all that brilliant. But they want them to be tough, so that they can count on them in a real crisis. And for all the times her eyes bounced around like pinballs, there were many moments in last night's long and tough fight when you could glimpse the steel in Redford's spine.

That self-evident toughness was the real story behind the success of Canadian politicians as different from one another in approach and philosophy as Pierre Trudeau, Stephen Harper and even the little boxer Tommy Douglas, the 1922 lightweight champion of Manitoba, who has a much softer image today than he did when he was in office.

This is a particularly troubling issue for women politicians, who labour under the burden of being assailed for not being feminine and at the same time for not being tough. But it is said here that voters do not mind it one bit when a politician of either sex shows steely resolve in the face of a tough situation.

Well, Redford certainly faces a tough situation now, partly, although not entirely, of her own making.

If this debate performance manages to save Redford's political bacon, it will have been those flashes of toughness, not the string of pearls, that did the trick.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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