A disclaimer before I wade in on the French debates last night:
I absolutely refuse to use the word "knock out punch" at any time in the lifetime of this blog when referring to a debate.
OK. That said, let's jump in. I agree with most of what Paul Wells said (as I usually do) but here's my take:
Ducceppe was clearly the winner. He had the huge benefit of being the frontrunner without a record to attack and, unlike the other leaders, he didn't have to worry about upsetting the rest of Canada. He attacked Martin on EI in the best exchange of the debate and brought up CSL and Adscam as often as he could. He also went after Harper to make it clear he would not "sell them out" to prop up a Harper minority. He was always very pointed in his attacks and did everything which he had to do. Unbelievably, sovereignty never came up once. To me, this is unbelievable. This is the one issue the Liberals could use to scare federalists back to their cause and an issue Harper or Layton could use to score political points outside Quebec, but no one brought it up after Ducceppe's opening remarks. The guy was almost giddy after the debate (well, as giddy as Gilles Ducceppe can be) when asked if he was surprised no one mentioned it. I'm also shocked no one brought up the Clarity Bill since either Harper or Ducceppe could have pointed out both Martin and Layton's murky positions on it.
As for Martin...the thing is, debates reinforce your existing opinions of a candidate. This is why I really do think Ducceppe won - I hate the guy and detest the Bloc but even I'll admit he did a good job. Martin however did about how I expected he'd do. He lied numerous times about Stephen Harper and seemed a tad whinny at times. He was on the defensive most of the night but, to his credit, did a descent job defending himself. He looked a lot more rested last night and while he rambled on a bit, he didn't stutter as much as I thought he would. Given that Quebec was pretty much a lost cause for the Liberals, he did what he had to do - He got some confidence back and avoided looking really bad in the eyes of English Canada.
As for Layton, he was really irking me at the start of the debate. He seemed a bit over the top but as the debate wore on, I thought he did a lot better. His French was better than I'd expected and he seemed positive and sincere the entire time. He hit on social issues, which is what he had to do, and was really the only man in the room who wasn't marked as a target going into the debate, so it was hard for him to come out of it looking badly. I disagree with Wells that he'll get a boost in the polls because of it, but he looked very good in my opinion. I think he'll come off looking good in the English debates if he uses the same strategy since it was a good contrast to his reputation as a publicity whore prone to wild accusations and exaggerations.
And finally, Stephen Harper. I think Harper did the poorest of the four but that's likely to be expected given his weak language skills. The messages were all right but the delivery just wasn't there. He seemed extremely uncomfortable up there and a little nervous. He did a good job defending himself but was terrible in his attacks. Especially against Martin. How he can attack Martin for wild spending is beyond me when his platform spends 10 billion more than the Liberals each year. Contrary to what a lot of pundits say, Harper needs to land a blow or two on Martin tonight and he's going to have to go on the attack. But if he does what he did last night when defending himself, he'll do good. He was cool and patiently waited for his chance to speak before clearly laying out his position.
The Ipsos survey among francophone Quebquers had Ducceppe winning at 57% and Martin at 23%. Layton and Harper were just under 10%. Which is similar to where the parties stand in Quebec, although Ducceppe is a bit higher than his poll numbers and Martin a bit lower. Given this, Ducceppe clearly did what he had to do - he prevented a reversal. With only two weeks left and the election up in the air, Martin is going to have to give up on Quebec and focus on Ontario. Because of that, Paul Martin, the man who was supposed to kill the Bloc is going to have to do something he never imagined he'd have to do when he took office - write off Quebec.