Going into the first official UCP leadership debate there was little expectation for this writer that someone was going to come away with a one-two punch.
I always watch these debates with the anticipation that there will be a "You had an option, sir" , or "I happen to believe that you've sold us out", or one of the most famous "You know most Canadians if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion".
At last, there was no knockout punch, each of the candidates tried to get in a zinger or two but none landed in the way that could shape the leadership race in a dramatic method.
The biggest night takeaways though were from former Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney and former Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith.
Smith went into the night with a weight around her neck.
She was prepared to talk about the biggest stumble of her campaign since she announced. Earlier this week Smith said in a podcast, "Once you’ve arrived and got stage four cancer and there’s radiation and surgery and chemotherapy, that is incredibly expensive intervention — not just for the system, but also expensive in the toll it takes on the body.
"But, when you think everything that built up before you got to stage four and that diagnosis, that’s completely within your control and there’s something you can do about that that is different," she added.
This caused the Smith campaign to go on the defence. I mentioned during the Cross Border Interviews Live Debate Recap that Smith looked uncomfortable for the first time since entering the race. She looked like she was on her heels trying to stay afloat. She came out relatively unscathed by the attacks, but it was the first crack in the front runners' armour that I've seen since the start of the campaign.
Smith's big win for the night in our opinion was her continuous talk of her much-discussed Alberta Sovereignty Act. She knew her stuff and was able to walk the line and talk about how it was going to help Albertans. One of the big takeaways of the night for Smith was her line that Quebecers don't think about Albertans and it's time for Albertans to stop thinking of Quebec and start thinking of themselves.
It was a line that will define her leadership campaign. Will the voting membership reward her? If the constant interruptions from the audience last night was any indication, Smiths path to victory will be able one thing "Alberta First".
The other winner of the night was Calgary North MLA Rajan Sawhney, I wasn't expecting her to come out of the gate full force but she did and she may have done herself some good heading into the last two weeks of membership sales.
Maybe it was the luck of the draw, or maybe it was just that Mrs. Sawhney is more of a contender than most expected. She was given the Healthcare question which set her up perfectly to go on the attack against Danielle Smith.
Sawhney didn't back down from her barrage of attacks against the perceived frontrunner. And in doing so Sawhney was able to burst out of the pack from the night and show that she would be a formable opponent against NDP leader Rachel Notley during a leaders debate.
Sawhney will need to take the momentum from Wednesday debate and turn it into momentum heading into August.
Did What They Had To Do:
The other two frontrunners Brian Jean and Travis Toews did what they needed to on the debate stage. Dont mess up and dont come off as someone who thinks they are the frontrunner in the race.
Toews the former Finance Minister, kept his cool when Independent MLA Todd Loewen attacked him on the recent auditor general report for a supposed missing "4-Billion Dollars". Toews was able to keep his cool and came of as someone who is calm under pressure.
One of the only criticism of Toews from this writer was his arm movements. It looked at times like he was conducting a orchestra and not participating in a debate.
Brian Jean also did what he had to do. He attacked when he needed to, and he spoke to the camera when he wanted to get a point across. Jean discussion around the use of the surplus will undoubtably win over some fiscal conservatives who may have not wanted to mark him 1 or 2 on the preferred ballot before hand but now they may.
By extending an olive branch to Toews, saying that the former finance minister would make a great finance minsiter in a Jean Government it may have won over some of the Toews supporter to mark Jean as Number 2. And in a race packed with 7 candidates if the ballot comes down to Jean and Smith, every olive branch is needed to potential overtake of a Smith win.
Rebecca Schulz the Calgary-Shaw MLA did her best during the debate on intergovernmental relationships.
When Schulz talked about working with Municipal and Federal politicians for the better of all Albertans, she shined. Schulz talked about working with Calgary Ward 13 Councillor Dan McLean and Calgary-Midnapore Stephanie Kusie and having them at her leadership campaign launch. She positively demonstrated that provincial politics is not about 'us vs them', but 'all-of-us against the issues'.
She also spoke about her being the only cabinet minister to get a fair deal for Albertans on the a large file. Schulz negotiated a deal with Ottawa on $10-a-day daycare.
Todd Loewen the Independent MLA best moments of the debate came at the beginning of the debate when he went head to head against former Minister of Finance Travis Toews.
Loewen pressed Toews about his mussing over a potential Provincial Sales Tax. In doing so, a topic that Toews probably doesn't want to talk had to take questions over and over again Loewen showed he was willing to ask the tough questions. Loewen was in his grove when he kept talking about fiscal responsibility and the need to stand up for what is right even it meant getting kicked from caucus.
Former Culture Minsiter Leela Aheer had her moment when talking about economic diversification and the struggles that Albertans are facing due to the rising cost of living and inflation.
She was sent a shot across the bow of Schulz, Sawhney, and Toews campaigns saying that it was wrong to de-index income supports for those in needs. She said that if elected premier one of her top priorities would be to re-index income supports.
I'm sorry but I have to say this the biggest loser of the night was the debate watchers outside of Medicine Hat. I know I've had massive technical difficulties on the show and with live streams before, but I'm one person and I'm really not expecting to put on an official leadership debate with Albertans from all across this province tuning in.
The interrupts, the dropping of the feed really was the big loser of the night. I know that moderator (former Calgary City Councillor) Jeff Davison said that the debate would be available later it. It doesn't help anyone when people are watching the feed in the moment.
So the biggest loser of the night was the virtual audience and the UCP IT team. Hopefully when the debate moves to Edmonton later this month they might have a better wi-fi connection.
With the first debate now done and over, the seven candidates will need to continue membership sales. And if July has any indication on the state of this race, August is about to get more interesting and the "Best Summer Ever" might not have been 2021 but might actually be in 2022.