Crikey’s expert panel of commentators offer their verdict on last night’s debate:

David MacCormack: Ouch. You know Kevin Rudd must have flogged John Howard last night when even The Australian scored it a narrow victory to the Labor leader. No surprises there. Howard may have always looked like the nebbish school debating captain, but he has previously been bested by Kim Beazley and Mark Latham – neither of them exactly grand orators – and even struggled with a comatose Paul Keating in 1996. It shows how important debates are that he has won each of those elections, usually handily. His main problem – and it is one for the broader Liberal campaign – is an inability to stick to some simple messages. Rudd can reel off his priorities in his sleep, and frequently sounds like he is doing just that. Education. Housing. Childcare. Kyoto. Health. Bang. Everything is tied back to working families, just like it has been since the start of the campaign. It’s simple and it works. In contrast, Howard was all over the place.

Wayne Errington: Why is Howard so hopeless at leaders’ debates? Howard biographer Wayne Errington writes: It’s odd that John Howard is so hopeless at leaders’ debates. He was a successful debater in high school and it was his strong performances in parliament that catapulted him into the treasurer’s office while still in his thirties. So good was Howard on matters of economic detail that Malcolm Fraser would often refer parliamentary questions on the economy to his treasurer. Howard has also adapted well to television over the years, with his disciplined messages and reasonable tone. He is rarely ruffled by the likes of Kerry O’Brien in a lengthy interview. He is, in theory, an ideal debate contestant. Yet, last night he was nervous, repetitive, and crabby. Rudd’s performance was far from perfect, yet he was a clear winner on the night.

Mungo MacCallum: By polling day the debate will be a distant memory: Labor supporters are understandably chuffed by the not so great debate, so they might as well enjoy it while they can; when people go to the polls in 30 days time it will be at best a distant memory and at worst totally forgotten. And this, of course, is just the way John Howard planned it: a single debate right at the start of the campaign hedged round with enough terms and conditions to make it stultifyingly boring for the few viewers engaged enough to desert Kath and Kim for a brief glimpse of their leaders. In the circumstances it is surprising that anyone watched it at all – except, of course, the worm.

David Flint: As to the debate, not much was made about the fact that Howard had the cabinet there, but where was shadow cabinet? Is Rudd trying to hide them? David Spears emerged as by far the best chairman yet seen. The panel redeemed something of the reputation of the gallery which has so far given Rudd a dream run, just as they did Latham – remember the FTA? The weakest answer on campaign issues was Rudd’s failure to provide any carbon emissions targets for his first, second, third fourth or fifth terms, if they eventuate. Rudd is usually more careful, setting up some long often convoluted process to find a solution well down the track. On emissions he foolishly announced the long term solution first – a massive reduction – and then tried the impossible – to work backwards with an inquiry into the costs of the policy and the targets to be achieved by a Rudd government.

Peter Fray

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