The big debate test in the Ontario election remains ahead for the four party leaders when they clash in the only provincewide televised face-off of the campaign next Monday night. 

In the meantime, Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner will all be aiming to learn lessons from Tuesday’s lower-profile debate focused on northern Ontario. 

Here’s what that event on Tuesday revealed about each leader’s debating strengths and weaknesses and what they’ll need to accomplish when the eyes of the whole province are on them next week. 

Doug Ford 

As the incumbent and the current front-runner, according to the The Canadian News Ontario Poll Tracker, Ford has the most to lose in debates, so his dominant mission is simply not to stumble. The key goal is not to provide clips in which he looks bad that get amplified to wider audiences on TV, radio and online. 

Ford’s strategy to accomplish this appears to be not to take the bait from his opponents when they slam him. Instead, Ford tries to redirect any criticism of him back to the Liberals and their 15 years in power. 

It’s political jiu-jitsu: using the force from an enemy attack and turning it onto your opponent. 

Ford got into a couple of testy exchanges with the other three leaders on Tuesday in the northern Ontario debate — most notably during a section about the PC government’s handling of COVID-19. (Gino Donato/The Canadian Press)

The best example of that was Ford’s response to a question about highways in the north. “Mr. Del Duca, you had your opportunity and you failed,” said Ford. “You were the minister of transportation. You didn’t build absolutely nothing.” 

Ford came through the 90-minute debate mostly unscathed, so in that sense it’s mission accomplished for the PCs. However, he revealed a couple of weaknesses that could cost him on the far bigger stage of the provincewide debate.

Moderator Markus Schwabe of CBC Radio’s Morning North asked Ford a straightforward question about his government’s performance in the COVID-19 pandemic. It was something Ford should have been able to hit out of the park. Instead, he came across as defensive, with a tone that implied how hard it was to be premier in a pandemic. 

“We were going around the clock,” Ford said. “I’ll tell you, folks, there were some challenging times and really tough decisions.”

After the COVID-19 discussion opened up to the other leaders, Ford reacted to their criticism as if it wounded him personally, saying he was “shocked and disappointed.” Ford’s handlers will likely want to rethink how he responds to pandemic questions next Monday. 

VIDEO | Doug Ford, Steven Del Duca clash over highways  

‘You failed’: Doug Ford takes shot at Steven Del Duca over past work as transportation minister

Liberal leader fires back by attacking PC plan to build Highway 413 in the GTA. 2:26

The debate also laid bare just how heavily Ford has relied on a teleprompter to read his speeches. During the entirety of his opening and closing remarks — what should have been a simple minute-long elevator pitch to voters — Ford constantly looked down to read from notes.

It probably doesn’t matter one iota to many voters, but it sure risks prompting some of those who watch to conclude that Ford’s words aren’t authentically his. 

Andrea Horwath 

The NDP leader seemed shaky off the top of Tuesday’s debate. She veered off into talking about doctors and nurses in a question about the municipal property tax system and rambled in her answer to a question about the impact of AirBnB accommodations. 

Over her 12 years leading the NDP, Horwath has at times struggled to deliver off-the-cuff remarks in a strong, clear, way, instead pausing frequently with umms and ahhs. 

That is not a barrier to winning an election: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Q-and-As with reporters are riddled with umms and ahhs. Still, Horwath would benefit next Monday from showing greater confidence in her grasp of the issues. 

Horwath managed to score points on Del Duca when listed what she sees as the failures of the former Liberal government. ‘He doesn’t want anybody looking in the rearview mirror because they left a wreck back there.’  (Gino Donato/The Canadian Press)

Horwath is at her best in debates when she nails Ford and Del Duca for their failures in government. 

She succeeded at that when she slammed Ford for promising “an iron ring around long-term care that never showed up.” Her best shot at Del Duca came when she reamed off a list of things Liberal governments did and added, “He doesn’t want anybody looking in the rearview mirror because they left a wreck back there.” 

Horwath will need to create more moments like that if she’s to succeed in capturing attention in the provincewide debate and boost her chances of making gains in the final two weeks of the campaign. 

Steven Del Duca

Ontario Liberal operatives are fond of saying that Del Duca’s opponents underestimate him at their peril. Unlike Ford, Del Duca never relies on a teleprompter and unlike Horwath, he shows zero verbal uncertainty when speaking about policies. 

Del Duca’s strong command of the material means that he comes across as pretty unflappable, which is not a bad thing in a debate. Yet there remains something about the way he delivers that material that can also come across as flat and lacking passion. 

Del Duca attacked Ford on the PCs’ plan to build Highway 413, describing it as a project that would ‘destroy the greenbelt, farmland and wetlands and save only a handful of commuters mere seconds.’  (Gino Donato/The Canadian Press)

Like it or not, emotions are a factor in politics and election campaigns. Del Duca could benefit from appealing to voters’ hearts as much as their heads. 

Del Duca’s greatest display of strength of feeling on Tuesday came when he ripped Ford’s plans to build Highway 413, making a direct pitch about why voters should care. The Liberal leader described it as “spending $10 billion of your money” on a project that would “destroy the greenbelt, farmland and wetlands and save only a handful of commuters mere seconds.” 

Mike Schreiner

The Green Party of Ontario leader has the most to gain and the least to lose from these debates, and he is clearly seizing the opportunity. 

Schreiner was the disruptor in the northern Ontario debate, able to go on the offensive against all of the other leaders without becoming the focus of any of their attacks. 

Schreiner was able to go on the offensive against all of the other leaders without becoming the focus of any of their attacks.  (Gino Donato/The Canadian Press)

One clever tactic Schreiner used was confronting Ford with a direct yes-or-no question. Asking Ford whether he will end the wage restraint bill his government slapped on public sector workers, including nurses, seemed to put the PC leader on the back foot.

Schreiner has long been known by those who follow Queen’s Park closely as a strong communicator. The next debate can’t help but give him a wider profile and a bit of a bump to Green candidates around the province. Whether it will actually be enough of a bump to win the Greens any additional seats remains in question.

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