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Debates shine spotlight on party leaders’ strengths and weaknesses

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

For Canadians, this is a week of facing responsibility. For kids, it’s going back to school. For adults, it’s paying attention to an election almost no one wanted — and to the choices we must make on Sept. 20.

And like school kids on their first day, Canada’s party leaders will line up nervously beside with their peers at the French and English debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights, respectively.

If you’re just tuning into the campaign, here’s a quick plot synopsis — and a look at what’s at stake in the debates.

Read more: How to watch the 2021 federal leaders’ debate on Global News

The campaign so far: Converging policies, clashing personalities

With no compelling reason for this election, the campaign has lacked a singular focus. Reading the nation’s risk-averse mood, no party proposes a major shift from the incumbent Liberals’ post-pandemic direction — just more or less of the same.

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All leaders target the middle-class voter with promises to make life more affordable, while promising that someone else will pay the bills. They all aim to increase the supply and reduce the costs of housing and child care. They all — for the first time — have detailed plans to put a price on carbon emissions. They all accept at least a decade of massive fiscal deficits.

We’ve heard relatively few ideas about how to grow the nation’s wealth, and lots of ideas about how to redistribute it. While they all have different approaches, on policy there is actually less battleground than common ground. The big clashes have been about values, motives and trust.

Leaders’ debates are the main events of every campaign. Most voters don’t watch them live, and their impact is often gradual as clips are shared — sharpening differentiation, igniting or arresting momentum, hardening or softening preferences, and shaping the ballot question in voters’ minds.

Here’s my look at the contenders — including their positioning, strengths, vulnerabilities and potential strategy.

JUSTIN TRUDEAU, LIBERAL LEADER

Click to play video: 'Canada election: Trudeau blasts O’Toole about his candidates’ vaccination status' Canada election: Trudeau blasts O’Toole about his candidates’ vaccination status
Canada election: Trudeau blasts O’Toole about his candidates’ vaccination status – Sep 7, 2021

Tale of the tape: Trudeau enters the ring bloodied but unbowed after calling an election without a clear reason or theme, reinforcing accumulated perceptions of entitlement and opportunism. An anxious nation seems less likely to give him the benefit of the doubt, as a Leger poll last week showed that 41 per cent of Canadians had a worse opinion of him since the campaign began.

Still, Trudeau retains a narrow edge as Canadians’ top choice for prime minister. He also campaigns best from behind, and found new focus as unhinged attacks from anti-vaxxers enabled him to position himself as a champion for the reasonable majority. In addition, after falling flat with a video manipulated to make Erin O’Toole appear to undermine universal health care, Trudeau finally found a “smoking gun” in Conservative double-talk on gun control.

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Strengths: Naturally theatrical, Trudeau commands the camera and excels with a script — particularly when on the attack, in either English or French. He is well placed to speak for the majority of Canadians who favour vaccination mandates, bold action to stop the climate crisis, and an active role for government in the economy.

Vulnerabilities: Trudeau’s tendency toward sanctimony and his habit of dodging questions could hurt him, given his low trust scores. An Ipsos poll conducted last week showed that 46 per cent of Canadians believe he will say anything to get elected — 17 points more than those who believe the same about O’Toole — an ominous gap in an area where Trudeau hopes to attack his rival.

Best strategy: Shift the focus away from himself and onto key decisions he has made, which polls suggest most Canadians support. Highlight his front-bench team more. Use the gun control issue to highlight the gap between what Conservatives say privately and publicly. Finally, watch for him to reprise his 2019 strategy of asking Liberal/NDP switchers to back him to stop the Conservatives.

ERIN O’TOOLE, CONSERVATIVE LEADER

Click to play video: 'Canada election: O’Toole says party would keep ‘status quo’ on firearms restrictions as review conducted on classification system' Canada election: O’Toole says party would keep ‘status quo’ on firearms restrictions as review conducted on classification system
Canada election: O’Toole says party would keep ‘status quo’ on firearms restrictions as review conducted on classification system – Sep 6, 2021

Tale of the tape: O’Toole has made a career of being underestimated, and there is a long history of opposition leaders winning by exceeding expectations. More surefooted than Andrew Scheer, and more at ease with people than Stephen Harper, he has run a disciplined campaign. O’Toole wisely released his comprehensive policy platform early — anticipating and neutralizing the Liberals’ “hidden agenda” attacks. He is doing what an opposition leader must do when the spotlight first finds them: be a sound, sensible alternative.

O’Toole’s challenge is a party with a moderate head and a divided soul. The Conservative coalition includes a large, temporarily quiescent minority with many views misaligned with the urban and suburban voters who decide modern elections: on vaccinations, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, climate change, and a hatred of Trudeau that’s somewhere between irrational and pathological.

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Strengths: At his best, O’Toole comes across as the likeable suburban dad next door — the guy who greets you warmly while walking the dog. He’s pivots smoothly from defence to offence, with a strong command of policy and an ability to make it relevant to ordinary people.

Vulnerabilities: While O’Toole is less effective than Trudeau when scripted, his greatest risks may come from too-obvious attempts to deflect issues — as he did last week on gun control. Opposition parties rarely win when their policies become campaign flashpoints. With the polls showing a narrow Conservative lead, he will be under fire like never before, with four opponents eager to seize on every comment — and every omission.

Best strategy: Like Ali challenging Foreman, O’Toole’s best play may be the rope-a-dope — let his opponents tire themselves out, while he shows himself to be reasonable, moderate, likeable, and confident. In the French debate, he’ll try to find common ground with Blanchet while promising Quebecers a voice in government. In both debates, he can be gracious with Singh, and watch for openings to turn the tables when Trudeau attacks him on trust. O’Toole doesn’t need to win the rumble, just emerge unscathed from the jungle.

JAGMEET SINGH, NDP LEADER

Click to play video: 'Canada election: Singh pledges to make public transit fully electric by 2030 by doubling funding' Canada election: Singh pledges to make public transit fully electric by 2030 by doubling funding
Canada election: Singh pledges to make public transit fully electric by 2030 by doubling funding – Sep 7, 2021

Tale of the tape: Singh is the happy warrior of this campaign, one with formidable powers: an effortless charm, a near-bottomless arsenal of spending commitments, and an ability to avoid hard questions about their viability. His stock answer and mantra — “make the ultra-rich pay” — is slyly designed both to hold onto the hearts of the NDP faithful and to appeal to younger voters who are more likely to be disenchanted with capitalism’s excesses.

Singh’s problem is that his accessible voter pool — Liberal/NDP switchers — is motivated by fear of the Conservatives, and may stick with Trudeau where the Liberals are the stronger option. If the NDP surges, however, he will face new questions about his policies — because if they were implemented the bills could not possibly be paid by the “ultra-rich,” but rather by the moderately successful, middle-class suburban voter — and ultimately their children.

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Strengths: Like Trudeau, Singh has a strong stage presence, and it comes across as more authentic and less cultivated. While just seven years younger than Trudeau and five years younger than O’Toole, he speaks with the cadence of a different generation. And he outpolls his rivals on sincerity, motives and ethics.

Vulnerabilities: Singh has often struggled when he has to go deep into policy detail, and he has less experience on the hot seat than his rivals.

Best strategy: When talking about his own agenda, be positive and earnest; present a vision for a better country. When talking about his opponents, highlight the very real perception that both the Liberals and Conservatives will say anything to win. Look for moments when he can play to the camera, asking the classic third-party question: “Can you believe these guys?” He knows the answer, for many, will be “no.”

YVES-FRANCOIS BLANCHET, BLOC QUEBECOIS LEADER

Click to play video: 'Canada election: Blanchet says not to compare the records of Quebec, Alberta on climate change' Canada election: Blanchet says not to compare the records of Quebec, Alberta on climate change
Canada election: Blanchet says not to compare the records of Quebec, Alberta on climate change – Aug 20, 2021

Tale of the tape: Blanchet began the campaign warning of the threat of a Liberal majority, arguing that a strong Bloc would strengthen the province’s hand in every interaction with Ottawa — particularly on issues dear to Quebec nationalists, such as secularism and language laws. While his core message is unchanged, his target is less clear as the Conservatives have gained ground. Quebec is now a landscape of unpredictable regional battlegrounds, with different parties contending in different areas.

In 2019, the Bloc leader’s one-man performance saved his party from extinction, and the stakes are high once more. He will aim to use his mother-tongue advantage to dominate the French event. In the English debate, he can let down his guard and swing freely.

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Strengths: Blunt and charismatic, the straight-talking Blanchet was a force on the stage in 2019. With only Trudeau able to go toe-to-toe with him in French, and no other leader inclined to antagonize Quebec Premier Francois Legault, Blanchet is well-placed to make the case against centralism, knowing few will challenge him.

Weaknesses: Blanchet can also be mercurial, which can be a double-edged sword that can turn off viewers if he comes across as disrespectful or unfair.

Best strategy: In addition to highlighting his alignment with the popular Legault, Blanchet can play the provocateur, trying to bait the other parties into comments or positions he can use against them. He will likely try to undercut O’Toole’s credibility to arrest Conservative momentum. The Bloc’s platform is full of possible land mines, such as proposing to make knowledge of French a condition of Canadian citizenship in Quebec, to allow Quebec to sign international treaties, and to promise no public investments in legal challenges to Quebec laws.

ANNAMIE PAUL, GREEN PARTY LEADER

Click to play video: 'One-on-one with Green Party Leader Annamie Paul' One-on-one with Green Party Leader Annamie Paul
One-on-one with Green Party Leader Annamie Paul – Sep 6, 2021

Tale of the tape: It didn’t have to be this way. After almost four decades as a lonely voice on environmental issues — and historic breakthroughs in recent elections — the Greens could have been uniquely relevant now. Voters are motivated by the existential threats to the planet’s climate, and weary of the polarization in our political climate.

With few resources, a bitterly divided party and an uphill battle even to win her own ill-chosen Toronto riding — a Liberal stronghold — Annamie Paul entered the campaign with everything to lose. For that reason, she enters the debate with everything to gain.

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Strengths: Most viewers will never have seen Paul speak. They will likely be impressed: she is poised, confident and articulate. She will earn marks for her belief in herself, and her perseverance.

Weaknesses: Paul has to get into the conversation — any conversation. With the other leaders focusing on one another, she risks being sidelined, and may have to get confrontational to get noticed. The risk is that this undercuts her message of being a positive alternative — a different type of politician.

Best strategy: Make it personal; show the qualities that have helped her overcome the odds to get onto the stage. Drive home the question of whether “more of the same” is going to fix the climate crisis, or improve Canadian democracy. Be a voice that the voters of Toronto Centre want in the next Parliament.

Daniel Tisch is the CEO of Argyle, one of Canada’s largest public engagement and communications consulting firms. He has advised a long list of private and public sector leaders, including cabinet ministers and heads of government representing all major parties

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