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Ontario Conservative Leader Doug Ford makes a point at the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities debate at the Capitol Centre in North Bay, Ont. on May 10, as Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner look on.Gino Donato/The Canadian Press

Doug Ford is a big and enthusiastic man, qualities that helped the Progressive Conservative Leader deliver a winning performance in the first leaders’ debate of the Ontario election campaign.

Relatively few people will have watched the Tuesday afternoon encounter, which was dedicated to issues of concern to Northern Ontario. To the extent word gets out, it is likely to affirm that Mr. Ford remains on track to win a second majority government.

But there is a caveat. Neither Mr. Ford nor any of the other party leaders paid much attention to the issue that is quickly emerging as the one that matters most: $2-a-litre gasoline and other signs of an alarming increase in the cost of living.

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Any governing party anywhere remains vulnerable to voter shock at rising inflation. The sharpest criticism that can be levelled at NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca is that they failed to capitalize on that vulnerability.

Ms. Horwath did give a solid and assured performance, which was to be expected from a party leader in her fourth election campaign. She also delivered the nastiest shots.

Mr. Ford “spends a lot of time prioritizing his buddies and it’s the rest of us that pay the price,” she stated. “They get everything they want, and you pay for it.”

But just as she failed to capitalize on the opportunity as Opposition leader to become a premier-in-waiting, the most that could be said about her performance was that it might help her keep that job.

Steven Del Duca delivered his first debate performance as Liberal Leader, and it showed. His delivery was flat and, standing beside Mr. Ford, his stage presence was noticeably lacking.

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At this point in the campaign, the Liberals are hoping to replace the NDP as Official Opposition. But Mr. Del Duca did not advance his cause in the debate.

Mr. Ford owned the room every time he had the floor. His down-home approach works well during election campaigns. He is the only one of the candidates who can say ”folks” and not sound foolish.

“If you want more excuses, more delays, more talk and more taxes, I’ll tell you, folks, you have a lot of choices,” he declared.

Doug Ford can pull off that kind of line in a way no other Ontario politician can match. It’s one reason he appears to be cruising to a second term, although the race is likely to tighten in the coming weeks.

The only candidate on the stage whose energy and confidence came close to matching Mr. Ford’s was Green Leader Mike Schreiner. But at this stage in the campaign, the Greens are showing no signs of growth.

One of the markers of a strong debate performance is a candidate’s ability to pivot from whatever is being discussed to the issue of greatest concern to voters. Polls show that the rising cost of living has become the No. 1 issue for voters for the first time in decades.

Yes, health care matters; yes, the environment matters; yes, improving highway infrastructure and public transit matters.

But people in Northern Ontario and everywhere else in the province are shocked at what it costs to fill a tank. Barbecue season has arrived, but have you seen the price of a steak these days? Housing inflation long ago went into bubble territory. What are you going to do about it, Mr. or Ms. Candidate?

The candidates in the Ontario election campaign aren’t tackling the inflation issue. Perhaps that’s because, outside of housing, it emerged only in recent months, after campaign platforms and priorities had already been set. Perhaps it’s because there is so little any politician can do about it.

When peace comes to Ukraine, the locked-down city of Shanghai reopens, interest rates rise a couple points higher and other stars align, inflation will start to cool, though the question for Mr. or Ms. Candidate then might be: How are you going to counter the recession?

But this week, this month, inflation rages while there’s an election campaign under way in Ontario. You’d think politicians might notice. They sure didn’t during Tuesday’s debate.

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