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Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, centre, and Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak speak after taking part in the Ontario provincial leaders debate in Toronto, Tuesday June 3, 2014. (MARK BLINCH/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, centre, and Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak speak after taking part in the Ontario provincial leaders debate in Toronto, Tuesday June 3, 2014. (MARK BLINCH/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Stumble early in debate could spell trouble for Wynne Add to ...

About a half hour into her first leaders’ debate, Kathleen Wynne found her legs.

By then, the damage may have been done.

Through the first month of Ontario’s election campaign, the Liberal Leader did not get as rough a ride on the gas-plants scandal as her party was braced for. But Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath made up for lost time during the debate’s very first segment, which fortuitously for them was on that very subject – using her role in signing a related document to tie her directly to the waste of public dollars.

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Ms. Wynne tried apologizing, repeatedly, for the waste of public funds. When that did not work, she made a clumsy attempt to turn the conversation to the math errors in Mr. Hudak’s platform. Throughout, despite occupying the middle position on the stage, she looked cornered – her voice and her body language understandably but unappealingly defensive.

For those who sat through the entire show and saw Ms. Wynne gain confidence – albeit not enough to land many jabs of her own, other than when she accused Mr. Hudak of wanting to “walk away” from the auto sector and other industries that need government support – that first bit may not have been hugely impactful.

What should be causing her campaign a lot of worry, though, is that the couple of TV panels that went live to air immediately after the debate leaned heavily on the ethics segment for their clips. Considering that many voters’ impressions of the debate are formed by the ensuing coverage, that could be a very big problem for her indeed.

It is unlikely, however the clips play, that any of the leaders won legions of new admirers. Other than straining credulity with a claim he would resign if his job-creation plan did not work, Mr. Hudak probably won on most scorecards by virtue of calmly delivering the clearest message of the three; he is such a take-it-or-leave it proposition, however, that most minds were made up on him heading in. Ms. Horwath was perfectly likeable, even as she delivered a few vicious lines against Ms. Wynne, but probably did not make the strong impression needed to elbow her way back into a campaign in which she has largely been marginalized.

But with plenty of voters still trying to make up their minds between the Liberals and New Democrats, and at least a few Liberal-PC swing voters needing to balance their desire for change with their distrust of Mr. Hudak, the question in the days ahead will be whether the battering on gas plants will make it harder for either group to justify voting for Ms. Wynne’s party.

The Liberals’ hope will be that, just as minds are already made up about Mr. Hudak, anyone who will vote against them because of the gas plants had already decided to do so before the leaders took to the stage. The additional concern for them, though, is that even if voters do not buy Ms. Horwath’s claim that Ms. Wynne is “corrupt,” they might be left with the impression the Liberal leader is weak.

That’s the exact opposite of the image Ms. Wynne’s strategists have tried to help her strike, starting with the television ad that showed her running along a country road and continuing with the scrap she picked with Stephen Harper at the campaign’s outset. At a time of economic vulnerability, they believe, voters want someone forceful and decisive.

For Ms. Wynne to come off that way at the start of a debate in which she was the only rookie, on questions that really have no good answers, may never have been in the cards. But if her party loses on June 12, a lot of Liberals will be second-guessing how those few minutes went.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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