Alberta Votes Day 18: Debate Night in Edmonton
From 1997 to 2004, Ralph Klein's debate prep was never more intensive than taking a swig of whiskey before going on stage. In 2008, one of the debate questions was literally "how come none of you are charismatic?", to which Brian Mason gave a memorable - albeit unemotional - "my wife thinks I'm charismatic" rebuttal.
This time, it's different.
Alberta is in the midst of its first competitive election in 19 years, and tonight's debate could very well tip the scales. Three of the four leaders are rookies, and newspaper reporters routinely get Brian Mason's name wrong in stories, so it's not like he's a household name anywhere outside of the Mason household. For all intents and purposes, this will be the first and only chance for the leaders to make an impression.
Global will be airing the debate on the tube and online from 6:30 to 8 mountain time. If you're looking for a good time, the National Post offers a drinking game - for a simpler version, simply take a shot of Big Rock every time you hear the words "conscience rights", "41 years", or "money for nothing".
I'll be live blogging as long as I stay sober, and the following are what I'll be looking for from the party leaders:
She may never have run for an office higher than School Board Trustee, but Danielle Smith enters this debate as the favourite. She's photogenic, well spoken, and knows a thing or two about how to act in front of a TV camera.
Of course, most voters have likely gotten to know Smith through carefully orchestrated photo ops and sound bytes. Her challenge is therefore to remain likable for the full hour and a half. If she can accomplish that, the substance of the debate will be largely meaningless. So long as Smith doesn't look like the extremist Redford paints her out to be, the election is hers for the taking.
Alison Redford's gutsy debate performance 3 days before the PC leadership vote, in the wake of her mother's passing, likely won her that contest. It will take an equally impressive performance tonight for her to save the 41 year old PC dynasty (41 years - take a drink!).
Unlike Smith, who can win on style marks, Redford will need good content scores to take this one. And therein lies the problem. She must paint the Wildrose Party as extremists...for holding the same views as many in her caucus. She must woe Liberal and NDP voters worried about Smith, all the while reassuring conservatives she bleeds blue. She must present herself as an agent of change, yet make the case that Alberta can't afford the type of change the Wildrose Party is offering.
She will be forced to defend the PC record, but must brush off attacks over PC scandal. She will make the case for increased spending on health care and education, but will warn that Danielle Smith's numbers don't add up.
Redford is juggling a dozen balls in the air. If she pulls it off, she's going to impress a lot of people, but it's far more likely they'll all come crashing down on live TV.
Raj Sherman is likely the least polished of the four leaders, but he does project a certain amount of genuineness - especially when talking about Health Care. Expect Sherman to stay in his wheelhouse tonight, using Health Care to define himself (as a former ER doctor) and attack the PCs (over corruption and mismanagement). If you're placing bets, there's a 1 in 15 chance he'll show up to the debate wearing scrubs.
With Redford looking to her right, Sherman is unlikely to face the same "tax and spend" and "NEP" attacks as his predecessors. The challenge for this former Tory MLA lies in recapturing the Liberal base, as most polls have Liberal support cut in half from their 1997-2008 levels. With this in mind, he should not be afraid to rally progressives behind the Liberals' "tax the rich to pay for health and education" platform.
The risk he faces is that many Liberals may reluctantly back the evil empire, to stop the Wildrosers. For all intents and purposes, any attack on Smith tonight is a de facto attack on himself.
Brian Mason faces the least pressure of any leader, since the rise of the Wildrose does little to alter his message. He doesn't have the same balancing act as the other leaders, and can speak directly to his base of Edmontonians who get off on recycling.
Mason will therefore read from the traditional NDP "kitchen table" cookbook, arguing the other three parties are all the same. The over/under on the number of times he refers to Raj Sherman as "a former conservative" has been set at 4.5 for the night.