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Another debate, another round of ties

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In what was more discourse than debate there were no clear winners in the federal leaders’ second televised English debate broadcast Monday night. But at least the tie debacle of the first debate was avoided. At the Dec. 15 th English debate three of the leaders showed up wearing pretty much the same tie,

a stripey blue-gold number, prompting Liberal leader Paul Martin to remark after an awkward silence: "I guess you guys just don’t like red." This time around the leaders got it together. Conservative leader Stephen Harper in a solid blue, Bloc Quebecois Gilles Duceppe in another stripe, Paul Martin in mailbox red and New Democrat leader Jack Layton, I can’t remember what because I was transfixed with his makeup. Was that a natural tan or spray on?

Certainly important things were discussed and announced by the leaders in a radically altered debate format from previous elections. To prevent the shouting matches of former years that left voters just plain annoyed, in Monday night’s debate leaders responded to questions submitted on four topics by voters and posed by TV Ontario’s current affairs host Steve Paikin. The leaders were not allowed to talk over each other, although Paikin did allow timed rebuttals. The requisite topics of gun control, health care, and child care were trotted out and pontificated upon, but more risqué topics such as the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling on swingers clubs were also touched upon. Suffice it to say it’s a really weird thing to see Stephen Harper smiling when he says the word "swinger." Perhaps the most intriguing twist of the evening was the prime minister’s unprecedented policy change announcement that the government would seek to repeal the controversial 1982 constitutional notwithstanding clause. Analysts had postulated that the Conservatives might use the clause to knock down the gay marriage bill passed last year.

"The first act of a new Liberal government is going to be to strengthen the Charter and we will do that by removing… the possibility for the federal government to use the notwithstanding clause, because quite simply I think governance says that the courts shouldn't be overturned by politicians," Mr. Martin said.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper was conciliatory through most of the debate, calm and smiling in response to Martin’s jabs, and speaking personally to viewers.

"My strengths are not spin and passion. I know that you know that," he said.

Martin was the object of repeated take down attempts by the three other leaders over the sponsorship scandal and finally blew his top.

"I’ve had enough of this," Martin said. "Get onto other issues," he said, maintaining he had dealt with and apologized for the sponsorship scandal.

NDP leader Jack Layton gave concrete examples to explain the rhetoric being passed around. When discussing equalization payments he mentioned raw log exports in B.C., unemployment funds "raided" by feds and how the gas tax should be directed to city coffers.

But enough of the cerebral stuff. It is reassuring to know our leaders actually do speak in more than six-second-sound bites, but who has the most savvy on screen?

Stephen Harper has a disconcerting used-to-be-a-fat-kid side-to-side sway that distracts from his logical, directed persona. And someone please get the guy a decent haircut. The most handsome guy at the podium, yet he simply doesn’t know how to turn on that asset.

Martin provided the evening’s spark, bolstering flagging energy in the tightly-formatted debate, often trying to goad Duceppe into one-on-one exchanges. But what’s with the Shar-pay hang-dog expressions? Work on keeping those eyebrows up, Paul.

For many of us in English Canada figuring out what Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe was doing in the debate was a puzzle, other than he regularly shot off the best one liners in the two-hour debate. "When Paul Martin is campaigning he talks like an NDPer, but when he’s in power he acts like a Tory," he said, and disparaging Conservatives unyielding stands: "They say ‘it come from the red, we’re blue, we don’t like it.’" There was no joking, however, about Quebec’s position on sovereignty: "We’re not a bitter nation, but we’re different. We need to talk equal to equal."

Even though Liberal speechwriter Scott Feschuk says in his blog Layton seemed "as though he was hosting a pledge break on public television" from my end of the couch Layton was the most polished of the speakers, rarely stammering or um-ing or ah-ing as the other leaders did, and firm on the NDP’s governmental role: "We don’t give blanket support to anyone."

Will the debate make me vote differently? Likely not, but what it does is remind me that our leaders are living proof they are not wind up dolls, but human beings with enough ego to believe they’re capable of leading a party or a nation, but still ordinary guys who stumble over their words and agonize over choosing the right tie.

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