A scant nine days before the Oct. 6 election, Tuesday night's debate is the Ontario party leaders' best chance to break their logjam. Adam Radwanski looks at how things could go right – or very wrong – for each one.
UPSIDE: Unlike his novice opponents, the Liberal Leader has been through this nerve-wracking experience several times. His relative comfort should help him with the underlying message that he's been pushing through the campaign: that he's the only adult in the conversation.
Because he'll mostly be speaking about his own record rather than criticizing someone else's, the Liberals are also hoping Mr. McGuinty will come off the most positive of the three. Rather than engaging much with the others, he will spend most of the night trying to speak directly to viewers about positive aspects of his government's record that the Liberals believe are usually overlooked.
DOWNSIDE: It goes without saying that Mr. McGuinty will spend much of the night with the other two leaders ganging up on him, which will make the less-savoury aspects of his record hard to escape. But the bigger danger may be that many viewers are already tired of him; if he comes off a little too sanctimonious, as he sometimes does, he could add to that fatigue.
Mr. McGuinty may also struggle to deal with Andrea Horwath – arguably a bigger concern to the Liberals than Tim Hudak because of the danger of centre-left vote-splitting. Pushing back aggressively against a likeable female leader could have very bad optics. But so would giving the appearance of being patronizing.
UPSIDE: For voters ready to move on from Mr. McGuinty's Liberals, but unsure about their alternatives, this is the Progressive Conservative Leader's best chance to prove he's ready to be premier. And for a rookie, he's unusually well-positioned to make that case. Polished and disciplined, almost unfailingly well-prepared for his public events, he's unlikely to stumble on policy details or otherwise prove himself unready for prime time.
At the same time, Mr. Hudak will likely try to soften his image. Expect at least a few personal references – to his daughter, Miller, his childhood, his immigrant grandparents – to be woven into his preferred subject of why Ontarians need pocketbook relief.
DOWNSIDE: Mr. Hudak's biggest weaknesses on the campaign trail are that he comes off too negative and too robotic. A debate in which he will inevitably focus on attacking Mr. McGuinty's record, largely in carefully scripted sound bites, could easily reinforce those impressions. Rather than looking like a premier, he could just look like an opposition leader.
It's worth noting that, at relatively brief press conferences, Mr. Hudak has a tendency to start out calm and relaxed and then get a little "hotter" – which is to say more intense and seemingly a little more angry – as they go on. If that habit has not been coached out of him in time for the 90-minute debate, it will be problematic.
UPSIDE: Nobody has more to gain from this debate than the NDP Leader. Her campaign revolves around striking a personality contrast with the other leaders, but has been challenged by limited media coverage. Standing in the centre of the stage between them, she'll use her sunny disposition and her down-to-earth manner to try to prove that she's the only one who can relate to everyday people.
Ms. Horwath's ideal scenario is that Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Hudak go hard at each other's throats at some point during the evening. If so, she will have the opportunity to rise above the fray, dismissing them as bickering boys and identifying herself as the voice of reason.
DOWNSIDE: Last week's northern-issues debate with Mr. Hudak, something of a dry run, gave New Democrats cause for concern. Relying heavily on notes, Ms. Horwath seemed nervous and ill-prepared, less comfortable explaining her policies than the PC Leader was with his. That was not entirely out of keeping with how she's been on the campaign trail, where she occasionally stumbles on facts and figures.
Having spent little previous time in the spotlight, Ms. Horwath may just be growing into the job. But the danger is that people who are parking their support with the NDP, or are leaning that way because of goodwill toward the late Jack Layton, could be scared off if she looks insubstantial.