Heading into Monday's televised leaders' debate, Christy Clark knew this was one of her last big chances to turn the momentum of the campaign in her favour. As it turned out, the Liberal Leader's consummate communication skills and telegenic appeal were not enough to overcome a central opponent in NDP Leader Adrian Dix who delivered the most important performance of his political career.
While Mr. Dix started off a little shaky – quite literally – he quickly overcame any debate night jitters he may have had and settled in nicely after that. There wasn't a question that he didn't see coming, including one about his infamous memo-to-file.
That, of course, was a reference to an incident when he was chief of staff to NDP leader Glen Clark in which he back-dated a memo in a bid to shield his boss from conflict charges. It led to his firing from government. Mr. Dix said he took full responsibility for the matter, which prompted him to return to politics with a much more positive attitude.
Mr. Dix wasn't the only leader forced to answer an uncomfortable question about their conduct. Ms. Clark got one about a recent revelation that she intentionally drove through a red light with her 11-year-old son and a reporter in the car. At first Ms. Clark played down the matter when asked about it on the weekend and referenced the fact that it occurred at 5:10 in the morning when no one was on the road.
But that excuse seemed like a wholly inappropriate response with the news the next day of a deadly collision in suburban Surrey in which five people died all because someone ran a red light. After that, Ms. Clark was less sanguine about the matter and had to respond to criticisms from some of her own Liberal colleagues regarding her conduct. During the debate, Ms. Clark said there was no excuse for what she did and added that she was sorry for treating the red light "like a four-way stop."
Beyond that, there were few questions that might have made any of the leaders break out into a cold sweat. John Cummins looked awkward when asked why he'd had to fire four of his candidates since the start of the campaign for past behaviour and comments that might have been discovered through routine checks of the internet. But then, he had some effective moments himself, especially when questioning Ms. Clark about her purported conservative fiscal credentials.
Many were expecting Ms. Clark to continue to make hay over Mr. Dix's controversial decision to reverse his position on the Kinder Morgan pipeline – a subject that provided her with her best moments during the leaders' radio debate on Friday. But that attack line seemed to go nowhere on Monday, with Mr. Dix responding that people know where he stands on the issue which is something that couldn't be said for the Liberal leader.
Most attention was focused on the two main leaders. The goal for Mr. Dix coming into the debate – the last one of the campaign – was to get out of it relatively unscathed, protecting his party's healthy lead in the polls in the process. Ms. Clark needed a big moment, something that gave a wide swath of people pause about possibly voting for the NDP.
She didn't get it.
While there were no knockouts, Mr. Dix probably won on points. He looked comfortable when many thought he wouldn't. He knew his stuff – which is his strength. He never seem rattled and, in fact, did a good job of putting Ms. Clark on the defensive on big issues such as the economy and debt.
By the end, Ms. Clark's well-worn cant about not wanting to "go back to the 1990s," seemed tired and ineffective. When Ms. Clark appeared to misrepresent either a purported Liberal achievement or an NDP policy, Mr. Dix interjected: "This is just so much politics." It wasn't a show-stopper but it did have some resonance.
Ms. Clark did not have any new big ideas with which to lure people to her side late in the game. By the end, there were probably more than a few people agreeing with Mr. Dix's contention that it was time for a change in Victoria.
With two weeks left in the campaign, B.C.'s 2013 election remains Mr. Dix's to lose. And it would appear the chance of that happening now becomes more unlikely by the day.