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Alberta leaders debate: Rachel Notley wins, Jim Prentice survives and Brian Jean loses

Rachel Notley

Let me get this off my chest first: There were no knockouts. The three opponents attacked Premier Rachel Notley throughout last night's TV debate, but not one of them could lay a glove on her.

OK, that was a joke.

Rachel Notley is the leader of the NDP, which is not even the official opposition, but which is obviously surging orangely in the polls conducted privately for the governing Progressive Conservatives, as well as the ones the rest of us are permitted to see.

Alberta's real premier is still Jim Prentice, the polite but grim-looking man who kept attacking the positions taken by the polite and cheerful-looking New Democrat. But it sure seemed a lot of the time last night as if it were Mr. Prentice who was the opposition leader and Ms. Notley who was the premier, didn't it?

Except, of course, few opposition leaders would look that worried during a province-wide TV debate, and very few premiers would look that upbeat.

Still, former Opposition leader Danielle Smith, free at last to say what she really thinks, nailed it when she observed in a Tweet early in the debate that "feedback so far is the men look grim and Rachel looks great."

Nothing really changed until Ms. Smith declared Ms. Notley the winner, a call with which I concur, along with, so it appears, almost everyone else.

Beyond that, though, there really were no knockouts. Both Ms. Notley and Mr. Prentice came into this performance with a lot to lose, and both of them left after deflecting the attacks they were subjected to without sustaining any serious damage.

That is a huge victory for Ms. Notley, whom it was argued here had potentially the most to lose. But the stakes were high for Mr. Prentice as well, and he didn't really blunder grievously either. At times, though, the premier looked so worried it was hard not to feel a certain sympathy for him.

As for those other two fellows, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who is not the opposition leader owing to the fact he didn't own a seat in the Legislature at dissolution, and Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann, you could argue they found themselves in the opposite predicament.

Mr. Jean and Dr. Swann had the most to gain from a major strike -- if only one of them could have landed a telling, iconic blow on the premier, or for that matter on Ms. Notley, they could have emerged the acknowledged winner of the debate on Global TV.

Instead, Mr. Jean stayed so tightly in his no-new-taxes message box that even his supporters must have been growing weary of him after an hour and a half. Dr. Swann proved again he's not really capable of conducting a coherent argument in public. The only moment in the debate that he shone was briefly during a discussion of health-care policy.

Neither Dr. Swann nor Mr. Jean could land even a glancing blow on any other leader, let alone score a resounding wallop. In other words, neither of them can claim to have made any gains from the debate, which was their big chance to do just that.

There was no iconic "You Had An Option, Sir" moment last night. Heaven knows how the television networks will try to spin the tape from the debate, but there were no ripostes that were going to make anyone want to write a screenplay.

A bolder strategy might have been in order for Mr. Jean or Dr. Swann, but it's too late now that the dust is already settling.

Ms. Notley, to my reckoning, really rang the premier's bell once, on his Tories' lousy record for keeping their own promises, a point that resonates with a lot of Albertans. She landed a couple of others -- including her reminder that Mr. Jean was not so long ago a major donor to Mr. Prentice's leadership campaign.

By contrast, Mr. Prentice couldn't seem to touch Ms. Notley, and not for lack of trying, although he dinged Mr. Jean on the question of how much the Wildrose Party's platform would really cost.

Mr. Jean did himself no favours by calling the premier a liar and waving a piece of paper at the camera while claiming the answers he was refusing to provide were all in his platform.

I'm also starting to find Mr. Jean's emphasis on his humble beginnings a little tiresome in light of the $20 million or so he admitted in 2006 to having stashed in his family's bank account.

The clear winner of last night's debate? Ms. Notley.

The runner up? Mr. Prentice, who at least avoided a catastrophe.

The loser? In my opinion it was Mr. Jean, with his tiresome repetition of his stale talking points without actually engaging in real debate.

But that's only because he had more to lose by not landing a punch than Dr. Swann, whose performance was at times excruciating, but unlikely to do much more damage to the already foundering Alberta Liberals.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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