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Deconstructing tonight's Alberta TV debate in advance

Rachel Notley

Everyone is wondering if tonight's televised leadership debate can be a game changer.

The prevailing wisdom -- which in this case is actually pretty wise -- is that such a moment is not very likely to happen, even if things get rowdy.

Just the same -- another bit of conventional wisdom that happens to be right -- debates matter more when a political race is close, as this one increasingly appears to be.

So when it's time to file our copy tonight, the odds are good most journos and bloggers will be intoning that "no punches were landed" on Premier Jim Prentice by the other three amigos who were allowed to take part in the debate by Global TV. But you just never know …

After all, such things do occur from time to time, and when they do, they occasionally change the course of a campaign.

Famous Canadian examples include Conservative challenger Brian Mulroney's 1984 TKO of Liberal John Turner in response to new prime minister's whinge that he had no option but to leave controversial appointments made by Pierre Trudeau unchallenged. 

"You had an option, sir -- to say 'no' -- and you chose to say 'yes' to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal Party,"Mulroney responded, ringing Turner's bell so loudly it could be heard across the country. "That sir, if I may say respectfully, that is not good enough for Canadians!"

Or there was the double-knockout in 1991 by then-little-known B.C. Liberal Leader Gordon Wilson, an amateur thespian who managed to score a ringing point on both his Social Credit and NDP opponents at the moment they finally paused in their squabbling.

"This reminds me of the Legislature and here's a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the province of British Columbia," he dryly interjected. Overnight, Wilson's party's chances went from chicken feed to chicken salad!

Tonight, we will have four candidates, three of whom are lawyers and have at least theoretically been trained in formal debate, but only one of whom is likely to be in a position to benefit much from the unexpected.

In Prentice, the PCs have a leader who reinforces the negative prejudices many Albertans already have about his party -- that it’s arrogant, entitled and out of touch. He needs to appear smart, reasonable and calmly fend off the most outrageous attacks, perhaps with just enough asperity to let viewers know they’re dealing with "extremists." At this point, he may be close to unsalvageable, so his best strategy is probably to keep it low key. The fact his speaking style is dull as ditchwater may actually help. Sufficiently soporific answers may cause viewers to pass out and miss telling shots by his opponents. If this were a hockey game, his job would be to keep the puck tied up in a corner while the clock runs out. There's not much incentive for him to pop any surprises, unless he has a good one about the Wildrose leader.

In Rachel Notley, the Alberta NDP has a leader whom Albertans find the most trustworthy and the capable. They also think she's a genuinely nice person. So she won't benefit from rude surprises, quarrelsome counterchecks or a flurry of roundhouse punches, metaphorically speaking. Indeed, with her party doing very well in the polls, she may have the most to lose. That said, she’s also the debate participant least likely to lose it, it's said here. Still, there’s not much incentive for Notley to incite a wild brouhaha.

In Brian Jean, however, the Wildrose Party has a brand new leader who is almost a blank slate. Who is he? What’s he done? Nobody seems to know -- there's astonishingly, frustratingly little in public about the man just yet. As a friend of mine puts it, "most Albertans would have a hard time picking him out of a police lineup of Leprechauns." So he's the candidate with the most to gain from a Gordon Wilson moment, and the person most likely to try for it. I doubt many Albertans have much idea if he's got it in him to pull it off. Maybe we'll know tonight. He'd be smart to steer the debate away from social conservative nostrums, though -- for the Wildrose, there be dragons!

Finally, in David Swann, the Alberta Liberals have an acting leader who is a decent and intelligent person but who is usually not up to the task of debating in public, as he has proved many times in the Legislature's Question Period. I would be astonished if Swann poses a threat to anyone but himself in this debate.

The debate is scheduled to take place 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. tonight on Global TV, Shaw Cable TV and two talk radio stations, News Talk 770 in Calgary and 630 CHED in Edmonton.

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

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