“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”– Will Rogers (1879-1935), actor, humorist and social commentator.
The three candidates for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party know whereof Rogers spoke. They are scheduled to face off this Thursday night in a debate to be broadcast province-wide on TVOntario. The party says a second debate will be held later, but the date has not been determined.
By the time it happens, it may not matter. The die could be set on Thursday. Debates don’t win elections. But in the history of election debates since the Nixon-Kennedy series in 1960, the first debate has generally been the most-watched and most critical in influencing the outcome.
It will the first opportunity for most Ontario voters to compare the candidates and the first opportunity for the candidates to show voters they have the requisite qualities of leadership.
The three candidates – Christine Elliott, Doug Ford and Caroline Mulroney (Lapham) – have three things in common. First, all three enjoy a fairly high level of public recognition, an asset each hopes to parlay into delegate support in a very short leadership campaign. Second, none of the three is tarred with the scandal that former leader Patrick Brown brought to the party. Third, none has offered a coherent set of policies.
The party already has (or had) an election platform, a pinkish manifesto called the “People’s Guarantee,” that the Tories adopted last November. It calls for creation of a provincial carbon tax as part of the national policy on climate change. All three candidates, led by Ford, now say they would not accept a carbon tax. Yet none of them knows how they would cover the $4 billion revenue hole that elimination of the tax would leave in the centre of the platform.
Once Ford, 53, took his no-tax stance, the other two were intimidated into adopting it, too.
Ford is in a unique position going into the debate. A pale imitation of his younger brother, the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, he hopes to extend his “Ford Nation” base – supporters who loath government spending – beyond the suburbs of Toronto and into the towns and small cities of southern Ontario. His message is highly conservative with echoes of the “drain the swamp” populism of Donald Trump.
But Ford’s only path to victory is to win a majority on the first ballot on March 10 (when the results of the one member-one vote balloting are announced). It is a preferential ballot, and it is unlikely that many supporters of the two women candidates would make Ford their second choice.
For Caroline Mulroney, the challenge in Thursday’s debate will be to demonstrate that there is more to her candidacy than a famous name. At 43, she is a lawyer, venture fund manager, mother of four and a political novice. The TV audience will know perfectly well that she would not be in the race this early in her political career were it not for her family name.
TVO debate host Steve Paikin will undoubtedly invite her to explain why she shifted from supporting to opposing the carbon tax. Was it principle or expediency? Was it because she saw how Ford’s “axe the tax” pledge was resonating?
Christine Elliott, 62, faces a different challenge. She needs to use the debate to overcome her image as a loser after her defeats in the leadership campaigns of 2009 (to Tim Hudak) and 2015 (to Brown). She needs to create the impression that she is the only candidate with the political savvy and caucus support to move the party beyond the Brown debacle, as well as the track record in government to take on Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in the election in June.
If, as I suspect, the race narrows to a choice between the two women, the party will be asked to choose between Elliott’s experience and Mulroney’s potential. The debate should help to clarify that choice.