The first impression left by the debate was the "reality show" aspect of it all. In the parameters of the reality show, the characters are allowed to lie and be two-faced and still win. Smugness can win over substance on a TV debate, just as it can easily do in a reality show (or a high school hallway). So that is sort of what we get in a TV political debate.
The debate as a reality show will seem like ancient history by voting day. The information conveyed, if any, will quickly grow in importance, even if it is up against hastily manufactured counter-spin from biased media and pollsters.
But what people will genuinely remember from the debate will be representative lines like the following::
Harper: "Our government has consistently blah blah blah blah......"
Ignatieff: This isn’t bickering, Mr. Harper. This is democracy.
As a matter of fact, even now it's tough to remember anything concrete that Harper said and the only thing that comes to mind was probably his most audacious lie / non-sequitur, something to the effect that "all economists in the country agree that raising corporate taxes is bad for the economy".
This sense of the result was confirmed by a group of 300 U of A debating students live blogging during the debate and tracked by the Edmonton Journal. They came up with a very significant result: Prior to the debate, 38% of them felt Harper would win. After the debate, only 15% thought Harper won. After the debate, a whopping 44% of the student debaters rated Ignatieff the winner, 41% gave the nod to Layton and only 15% picked Harper. This is victory of substance over smugness.
Oh yeah, actually, Harper's point that the fighter jets are an expense that's coming up only five years down the road and therefore can't be canceled to provide cash for this/next year's budget, if true, was probably his best point.
Another spot where Ignatieff blew Harper away was on building mega-prisons to mimic the already tried-failed-and-bankrupt U.S. right-wing approach to incarceration.
Harper didn't have a word to say on the matter beyond the lamest generalities, which would be the best way to describe most of his answers.
Another take on Harper's losing approach from Dan Gardner in the Ottawa Citizen, where he summarizes Harper's opinion of Parliament as a "squalid irrelevance", in a thorough dismembering of Harper's performance.
To be sure, there weren't any knock-out punches thrown. However, at the end of the day, Harper may have been still sneering, but his right to govern the country was down on the mat.