I just finished watching the two-hour long marathon that was the first candidates debate for the 2013 leadership race out in Vancouver, and one thing comes to mind: all nine - nine! - candidates are top quality and none of them disappointed. I remember watching the NDP leadership race and the Republican primaries in 2012 thinking, one or two of these people are actually credible candidates with thought-out ideas, the rest are bunk. Even our provincial leadership election here, no offense to some candidates, has some folks running without much substance to them.
This nonuplet all came across as intelligent, thoughtful, credible, and passionate candidates. I liked them all, even George Takach's attempts at humour were amusing.
But, let's be realistic. I've arranged the nine candidates into three "tiers," basically those I think will have an impact, and those that are going to be also-rans. This can change over time as the four other debates move forward and more leadership policy and news comes out, but given tonight's debate, here are my rankings and reviews for our candidates.
Tier One - "The Most Likelies"
It should come as no surprise who the top candidates are, as they're all MPs and it includes the two people that Canadians actually have opinions on.
Justin Trudeau's debate tonight was pretty good, as he stressed his main points about the middle class, about the importance of a strong economy, about loyalty to the Liberal brand, and of course, that he fought in the trenches of Papineau dontchya know! There isn't much to say as Trudeau have a standard performance that didn't necessarily wow me at any specific moment, but definitely kept me interested in what he has to say. I will say though that at one point, his answers about the middle class and economy and blah were just too cookie-cutter for the question being asked of him, which was about Canada's housing situation. Justin's been accused of being light on policy, and that kind of misstep will make people sensitive to such a claim.
Marc Garneau came on stage with pretty much the most passionate opening statement of the bunch, and kept up a strong energy level throughout the debate. Jokes about his astronaut career aside, he gave standard but substantive answers to the questions, and managed to get in some nice allusions to his constituency work and time in Parliament. I don't have any criticisms about Marc's performance, as I enjoyed his presence whenever he was on stage. Made a good impression, I think.
Joyce Murray had probably the worst position in the debate tonight, coming in as the candidate with the only major controversial idea - the one-off electoral co-operation idea. Joyce defended this idea against attackers, which included Trudeau, Cauchon, Hall Findlay, and snipes from others; her best moment in the debate was when she responded to Trudeau's attack on her co-op idea with a basic, "where's your plan?" Brilliant! At the same time, she didn't convince me of her idea's viability either. I wasn't convinced that co-op is a winner, just an idea.
But Murray also came out with more contentious ideas, including taking a somewhat left-wing sounding position on trade, especially against the Nexen deal and outsourcing jobs. I don't think her policies are actually left-wing, but the rhetoric certainly was - and damn, did it ever play up nicely with the crowd. She also got into a tiff with Hall Findlay and I believe David Bertschi (maybe Takach, I can't remember) over trade. Basically, Murray brought the most contentious positions to the debate, and I think it worked well for her. She'll certainly have a base to work out of, if the narrative works out that way. Her emphasis on her time as a BC provincial minster also really helped out, gave her a gravitas that the other candidates, except for Martin Cauchon, can't match.
These three candidates represent those that basically have the best chance of gaining momentum right now, and are in a position to make a race out of this (or in Trudeau's case, make sure it doesn't become one!).
Tier Two - "Maybe If They Try"
Martha Hall Findlay had a good debate tonight, coming in with cool answers to everything, but you could tell she had a tinge of passion behind them as well. Great body language combined with the courage to challenge others, like Murray, on subjects, made her performance interesting to watch.
Martin Cauchon also had a good performance, stressing Liberal values and loyalties, and why we're centrists and the best and etc. A very proud Liberal, to be sure. Gave some good retorts to some answers, including ones that went on a little longer than his allotted time, and he generally gave me a good impression.
My problem with both Martha and Martin, however, is that all I could think of them was "standard Liberals." There wasn't anything really different about these two, there was nothing that they really said that came off as anything but what the party would usually say. Good for loyal Liberals, but maybe not interesting enough for the rest of the electorate. Don't get me wrong, I liked what they said - I just didn't see how they were different from any standard Liberal candidate. Martha was the most interesting simply because of her performance and willingness the challenge others, but I'd love to see more of these two come out in the next debates.
Tier Three - "Long Road Ahead"
Our third tier candidates were actually all very interesting people, but they're neither well known, nor do they have much of a base - as of yet. But these four provided some of the most insightful answers and passionate responses tonight, and they're ones to keep an eye on.
Karen McCrimmon is someone that most people have no idea about. What I knew about her when she jumped in was that she lost painfully against Gordon O'Connor in 2011 (though increased the Liberal vote!). Tonight we got to see her introduce herself, and I was definitely impressed. Karen is articulate, thoughtful, and interesting. She has a unique background and appealed to me as someone that put her heart and soul into this debate. Excellent answers and a strong performance. Her major problem is, of course, that she'll have to build a base out of scratch. She definitely took a great first step though.
George Takach is another unique candidate, coming from a tech and entrepreneurial background. He played this angle up a lot, talking about the internet and technology and so on. Good performance, seems a solid Liberal. I met him during a Christmas party here very briefly, and while I didn't necessarily find his performance superb, he did make it interesting. Takach was pretty much the only one during the debate to actually focus what he'd do as party leader, rather than these general issues. I appreciated that, for the one question it lasted. But, again, he's not well known, and his Supporters putsch isn't going to get too far, I think.
Deborah Coyne is another candidate I met at the same Christmas party and actually had a good long conversation with, and I was impressed then, and still impressed now. Deborah is very thoughtful and had some interesting and contentious ideas, like scrapping the Indian Act (a position shared with Hall Findlay). She has an interesting background of course, being a constitutional lawyer and involved in Meech Lake and so on. I know she has some loyal followers, including Jeff Jedras - issue is, she's one of the better candidates, but can she really build up a big base?
David Bertschi had a great opener, talking about his roots and so on. Other than that, like Cauchon and Hall Findlay, I got the sense of "standard Liberal." Also an articulate guy and a lawyer, I enjoyed what he had to say - though his closing statement was a little messed up - but I wasn't that interested either, to be honest. I'd love to see something more from David.
A quick comment on the format and topics
I didn't have a huge issue with the format, I thought breaking up the candidates into 12 three-person debates was a novel way to get around the "having too many candidates on screen at once" issue that other leadership races have had. The French-English alternate also didn't bother me, it worked out well, and most of our candidates were fluent enough to manage. The questions from the audience also worked out well, though I wish this could've ended up in a more "town hall" format, than the staged debate it was. Works better that way. Overall, thumbs up on format.
The topics were also generally interesting, though they had three on electoral co-operation - a bit much, maybe. I also felt that you could've had more substantial debate if the questions focused more on one or two themes tops, which did sort of end up happening, though interspersed with other issues. We ended up mostly on electoral co-op, trade, aboriginal affairs, housing, an so on - I would prefer a specific debate theme, since we will have five of these. That may just be me, though.
Overall, good job to all the candidates, and to the LPC for its organization of this! I look forward to the debate in Winnipeg next month, and seeing how these candidates improve.
As for my "tiers," I don't know what I'll do with these, but I'd like some sort of "projection" for the leadership. Hard to do with the new voting system, and with the erratic polling methods, but I'll figure it out. For now, consider them official Blunt Objects rankings for the candidates - and remember, they can change!