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.

Howard has performed poorly at four successive election debates (his contests against Keating in 1996 weren’t great either, but expectations of him then were low). One problem is that Howard’s primary strength as a media performer, his ability as the incumbent prime minister to control the political agenda, is forfeited during the televised debates. The questions from journalists last night, though, mostly played to Howard’s strengths of economic management and national security. There were no specific questions on Labor’s home turf of health and education, although Rudd succeeded in turning questions on economic management around to his “education revolution”.

Another problem for Howard is that he usually likes to leave negative attacks to his senior ministers (or, during the campaign, to Coalition advertising). When he has to deliver the attacks himself, he looks less prime ministerial. On a couple of occasions last night he looked downright angry.

Last night’s victory for Rudd underlines the extent of the risk that the Coalition took in planning the first week of its campaign. Releasing their tax plan on day one gained the Coalition plenty of good press but any momentum from their first week was killed by Howard’s poor presence over an hour and a half of primetime TV. Howard has long conceded his weakness in the debate format by insisting on a single debate as far away from election day as possible. With the tax plan already out of the bag, what does Howard have left to cut into Labor’s lead?