Would you watch the Canadian debate or the U.S. debate? That was the big question facing Canadians last night. The assumption was that Sarah Palin's car wreck south of the border would prove irresistible to Canadians and that our group of five leaders would bore the crap out of anybody under 50. How surprising, then to watch and discover that just the opposite held true.
The Canadian format, with all five leaders seated around an oblong table, brought a welcome degree of intimacy and informality. It was practical, too; five podiums spread out in a line on a stage would have looked like a supermarket check out. More important, the kitchen table approach forced the Canadian leaders into eye contact, with each other and with viewers.
I kind of liked Green Party leader Elizabeth May's finger pointing approach. Leaders for years have been cautioned by handlers to cup their hands, jab with their palms up, all kinds of inoffensive nonsense. We all know they really want to point fingers. Thumbs up to that.
Props to TVO's Steve Paikin, too, for being such an effective moderator. He set the table, served the main courses in equal portions and cleaned up later. Nobody bullied their way through the debate. His crack that "I'm trying to make sure Biden and Palin don't take out audience here" was smart and memorable and kept everybody keen.
The U.S. vice-presidential debate, on the other hand, is locked into such a stilted format. It hasn't changed since the Kennedy/Nixon debates. The two candidates, standing at those same two podiums, deliver well rehearsed speeches that often don't seem to have any connection to the questions being asked by the moderator. It is such a safe format that Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin seems insulated from any direct hits, any knockout blows.
The U.S. format is tired and screams out for Dancing with the Stars judges Bruno or Carrie Anne to raise paddles and shout out "Nine!" or "Seven!" or whatever. It needs to be moderated by David Letterman, or Jon Stewart. As it is currently constituted, it is one long, boring bridge to nowhere.
In Canada, the line of the night might have come from Jack Layton, who at one point blurted to Stephen Harper, "Where's your platform--in your sweater?"
"Burn!" my 15-year-old son shouted, suddenly engaged. Others may see Layton's strike as too glib, rehearsed or shrill ("an endless sound bite attack," as one Globe and Mail reader commented), but, dammit, this is television. Simon Cowell didn't become a household name for keeping his tongue in check.
Remember, this is the knock out televised debating blow all other leaders fear and admire: