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Ontario PC Party Leader Doug Ford, second from left, reads from his prepared notes as, from left, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca and Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner debate during the Ontario party leaders' debate, in Toronto, on May 16.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Most observers expected Monday’s Ontario election debate would feature three opposition leaders ganging up on Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford. Most observers were wrong.

A combative Mr. Ford went on the offensive, saying of Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca’s time in the government of Kathleen Wynne: “You destroyed this province.”

He was no gentler with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, telling her, “You’ve lost touch, you’re out of touch with the hard-working men and women.” And in the everybody-talking-over-everybody segments, he was as incoherent as the best of them.

Mr. Del Duca was more forceful, if not more effective, in his second leaders’ debate, while Ms. Horwath gave yet another professional performance that failed to connect. From this desk, neither got the better of Mr. Ford, at least not enough to change the momentum of the campaign. But Green Leader Mike Schreiner? Oh my.

Time and time again Mr. Ford was caught flat-footed by Mr. Schreiner’s sharp, sometimes devastating attacks.

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On the proposed Highway 413, which Mr. Ford wants to build but all the other party leaders oppose, Mr. Schreiner said: “He will roll out the red carpet for the Amazons of the world and the big box stores of the world. But when it comes to supporting local farmers, he’ll pave over their farmland.”

“If it was up to you and up to the three of you, you wouldn’t build nothing,” Mr. Ford blustered back.

And in an eloquent rebuttal to Mr. Ford’s claim that his government had improved health care, Mr. Schreiner asked: “Have you talked to a nurse lately? Have you talked to a nurse about how disrespected they are? How overworked and underpaid and underappreciated they are? How insulted they feel about being called heroes and essentially having their wages cut?”

For a minute and a half the Green Leader indicted the PC Leader for neglecting people in long-term care during the pandemic, for shortages in equipment and vaccines. Mr. Ford just stood there and took it.

Whatever you think about how Mr. Del Duca and Ms. Horwath performed, Mr. Ford categorically lost the debate to Mike Schreiner.

But that’s probably okay for Mr. Ford. He knows Mr. Schreiner will not be the next premier. At one point the Progressive Conservative Leader even paid tribute to the Green Leader.

“I can work with Mr. Schreiner,” Mr. Ford said. So maybe that silence was intentional.

With the debates now finished, and no games changed, only two factors could shake up the race a little over two weeks prior to voting day.

The first would be an internal shock – a revelation of Tory misbehaviour so eye-widening that voters start to waver, and people who weren’t going to cast a ballot decide they will after all. There hasn’t been anything like that.

An external shock would be an event so momentous – such as gas at $2 a litre – that it shifts voter attitudes. But while people are deeply concerned about the affordability issue, in an election campaign defined not so much by contentment as torpor, more appear to fear political change than to embrace it.

This should also be said: Mr. Ford knows his voters. People living within sight of the CN Tower may be horrified by the Tory plans to build Highway 413 through the Greenbelt, but people commuting by car from the western part of the 905 region to the northern are desperate to have it. They will vote for the party that delivers that road.

And despite the rantings in much of the mainstream and social media, this Progressive Conservative government is anything but a hotbed of conservative ideology. It has invested, not only in roads, but in transit, education and health care.

That only leaves Mr. Ford’s populist personality as an issue. But polls show that he is in fact the most popular of the three major party leaders.

The PC Leader is not out of the woods yet – far from it. Polls also show that about half of all voters feel it’s time for a change of government in Ontario. But to these eyes, nothing happened in the debate to galvanize that discontent. All it did was make Mike Schreiner look real good.

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