Managing yourself in a debate involves having a deliberate mindset and intentions coupled with being prepared with well-crafted messages that share your platform.

I decided to watch the PC Leadership Debate on Wednesday with an eye to catching those types of responses to share with you. It was an interesting exercise. My husband and I had not watched the first debate and were trying not to form an opinion of the character of each of the candidates based on media reporting.

Even so, my husband was pretty sure that Doug Ford shouldn’t even be running. It was fascinating to watch his views change over the course of 90 minutes. In fact, our views of all of the candidates “evolved” (if that word has not been officially over-used after the debate) over the course of the evening.

When it comes to being prepared and smooth, each of them hit some significant glitches. This is a short leadership race with lots of surprises and some charged questions, so that was not overly surprising, but still disappointing – the predictable questions called for concise and well-thought out answers with some substance to them.

An amused Althia Raj kept things on track and tried to elicit details and specifics from the candidates… with varying success. This was a well-run debate that did not decline into attacks nor become overly repetitious in the main.

Some strong responses were given though seldom in a cut-and-paste sound bite format.

Doug Ford shared a key point that all voters need to hear about conservatives – Conservatives can cut costs without cutting jobs. To paraphrase: “At the city I was responsible for a $12 billion budget and saved $1 billion for Toronto taxpayers – and nobody lost their job.”

Christine Elliot’s promise of a line-by-line review of each budget item that goes deeper than a 2-4% savings on each dollar to explore “value for money” was also well delivered.

Caroline Mulroney spent a significant amount of time hesitating and quoting Patrick Brown’s People’s Guarantee without diving deep into any particular issue.

Tanya Granic Allen was certainly passionate, direct and quotable as she graphically shared how she would rip out the wind turbines and rip up contracts. Though I do question if that is how one would want to be quoted.

Doug Ford and Christine Elliot presented the more thoughtful and confident messaging.

Doug Ford’s use of stories, statistics, bumbling and personality were a surprising breath of humanity in an otherwise stiff and angry event.

Candidates often seemed to forget that their opponents were not their audience. Addressing the moderator directly in their responses would have allowed candidates to dissociate from the opponent in their responses. This limits the impact of your opponents words. When you reply directly to your opponent you transfer additional credibility and weight to their views.

Christine Elliot should have thanked Doug Ford for his “attack” on her character for flip-flopping on issues. What he did was gift her with an opportunity to address, head on, real questions that many in the party have raised. And – in a way that did not need to be intrusive or offensive. It is impossible to imagine how she could have injected her answers to those questions at any other point in the campaign without appearing whiny and defensive.

An amazing opportunity that she failed to fully embrace.

In your own campaign, it is important to remember that every question – especially those that seem like an attack – opens an opportunity for you to share and educate the voters. This will help you deliver thoughtful and thought-provoking responses that advance your platform.

I truly enjoyed the challenge Althia threw the candidates as she insisted they each say something nice about the other candidates in the race for Ontario Conservative Party leadership. Some prodding was needed to start them down the path but by the time Elliot and Ford had their turns, the pretty words started to flow a little better. Sometimes it is tough to be the first one to answer a question – hearing others’ responses gives you a chance to create your own.

In our adversarial electoral system, remember your opponents are not your enemies. We all have the same goals, we just disagree on the path to get there.

I suggest that you watch (or re-watch) the debate yourself – notepad in hand. Watch for those responses that you find powerful… and task yourself with re-writing responses that could be tighter, more concise and have a higher impact.

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