Doug Ford looked like a bystander in an Ontario party leaders’ debate that focused heavily on issues important to Torontonians and progressive voters rather than the suburban populace that represent Ford’s base, experts said.
Wynne and Horwath spent much of their time in Monday night’s debate warning about what a Tory government would bring, while Ford hammered home his key messages of finding “efficiencies” and “respecting the taxpayers.”
The race officially begins Wednesday, but the debate set the stage for the campaign and provided the leaders of the three major parties an opportunity to test-drive their slogans.
“It was a very downtown-oriented debate, so a lot of the issues that were discussed were really more salient for progressive voters who live in the 416,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Global Affairs.
“Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath had a pretty vigorous debate on some of these questions, so it would be interesting to see which one of them won over more people who were watching, who have that progressive orientation. Doug Ford was basically a bystander through most of the debate, but most of the issues they were talking about weren’t really relevant to people who are considering voting for him. To me, this was a debate about mostly progressive issues, but the real quesiton here is whether Wynne or Horwath scored more.”
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Bricker added that Wynne performed strongly despite spending large portions of the debate on the defensive.
“Overall, Wynne obviously was very well-informed on the issues but she seemed to be spending a lot of time defending against and trying to justify and explain why certain things were happening in the government. And that’s always a dangerous place to be because when you’re on your back, on your heels and you’re trying to defend yourself, you look defensive.
“But you also can get in this other situation where you start explaining to people and it turns into a little bit of a lecture… Hillary Clinton did the same kind of thing in the debates against Donald Trump.”
Ford’s inexperience with debating was clear, Bricker said, while Horwath did well in delivering timely jabs to both her opponents.
“I thought Horwath did a good job of getting under the skin of both Ford and Wynne, stood her own and I think performed strongly. Her experience in debates, since she’s been a candidate so many times, came through,” said Bricker.
“Doug Ford is not a comfortable debater, and really didn’t make a lot of points other than things he probably made in his statements, and just repeated them over and over again — about being on the side of the little guy and on the side of the taxpayer.”
However, Bricker added that given most of Ford’s voters don’t live in downtown Toronto, “him being a bit of a bystander probably didn’t hurt him very much.”
WATCH: Kathleen Wynne, Doug Ford and Andrea Horwath sparred over numerous issues in their first major debate before the election. Shallima Maharaj reports.
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Following the debate, the Liberal Party stated that Wynne accused Ford of intending to cut health care and education services, and that the Ontario PC leader struggled to muster a defence.
“Unable to explain his own policies or deflect from the harm they would cause, Ford quickly showed his true self — becoming aggressive, defensive and patronizing,” read the statement, citing examples of Ford telling Wynne that she doesn’t understand numbers, and scoffing that she has never helped run a government.
“As the Premier said, it was a disappointing performance from Doug Ford. But it’s exactly what people have to come to expect.”
Barry Kay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said given Ford’s position as front-runner in the polls, he appears to have taken a low-risk approach to the debate. The Tory leader said little to get himself in trouble but at times looked out of place, he said.
“He didn’t seem comfortable,” Kay said. “He was the least impressive in terms of style. He’s trying to make sure he doesn’t make any mistakes.”
Kay said Wynne did a capable job of engaging both Ford and Horwath on policy, but it may not matter in the eyes of voters.
“She came across as very knowledgeable but frankly, I don’t think it matters,” he said. “She needs one of the other leaders to make a mistake to win.”
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The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario issued a statement, titled “Ford Wins First Leaders’ Debate,” claiming that Ford used Wynne’s “record of scandals and mismanagement” to paint her into a corner, while fighting off her personal attacks.
“Despite competing in his first ever leaders’ debate against two experienced political debaters, Ford was still successful in fending off a series of increasingly desperate personal attacks from Kathleen Wynne,” the Ontario PCs said.
“Ford also successfully challenged Kathleen Wynne to answer for losing her way and abandoning her principles in favour of special interests and elites, including the CEO of Hydro One who today is making $6 million per year on the backs of hydro rate payers.”
The Ontario PCs added that Ford’s debate performance proved that he was serious about accomplishing five key things, namely “putting more money in your pocket,” “cleaning up the hydro mess,” “creating good jobs,” “restoring responsibility, accountability and trust” and “cutting hospital wait times.”
For his part, Ford pointed out that Wynne and Horwath are more experienced debaters, and said, “You have to be on your toes against such well-connected insiders.”
The provincial campaign will be Ford’s first as leader while this will be Horwath’s third time and Wynne’s second.
Cristine de Clercy, associate political science professor at Western University, said Ford didn’t make any major mistakes and also announced his transit funding commitment but did little else to offer up details on his plan.
“Mr. Ford spent most of his time on the defensive,” she said. “He didn’t lay out his plan… and if you were looking for those answers, it wasn’t a very satisfying debate.”
De Clercy said Horwath also performed well, staying upbeat and asking tough questions.
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The NDP said Horwath set a “powerful tone for the campaign ahead,” by standing out as the most positive and hopeful candidate.
“The first debate… painted a picture of the disappointment people are feeling after 15 years of the Wynne Liberals, and the two choices to replace them: Ford, who plans to cut deeper and privatize public services – and Horwath, who plans to undo the damage of decades of cuts,” read the NDP’s statement.
“Kathleen Wynne has left families feeling squeezed,” Horwath said. “Ford’s fix for the cuts is to sell off and privatize as much as he can, then make another $6 billion in cuts to the services that are left.
“I’m planning something completely different. Imagine a place where hydro is public, hydro bills are affordable, your prescriptions and dentist bills are covered, and your child-care costs just $12 per day. Imagine living in a province where hospitals are ready to help when you get there – without the long waits – and where you drop your kids off at school with less worry, knowing schools are safe places with enough teachers and educators.”
Horwath was named the winner of the debate in a Twitter poll run by CityNews Toronto, which organized the event. She picked up 43 per cent of the 8,702 votes, with Ford coming in at 39 per cent and Wynne at 14 per cent.
Bricker said that Wynne performed well as an incumbent, but didn’t effectively communicate a sense of change, handing Horwath the advantage in reaching out to undecided progressive voters.
“Horwath did a better job of that simply because she would be the change,” Bricker said, “so given that 80 per cent of people in the province of Ontario want a change in government, you have to give that to Horwath.”
— With files from The Canadian Press