The person who looked the best to me after Sunday's federal Liberal leadership forum in Quebec City isn't a Liberal.
It's Lyne Marcoux, who presided over last year's Parti Quebecois leadership election.
Faced with a similarly unwieldy number of candidates (nine, to the Liberals' 10), Marcoux came up with a formula for the PQ forums that was more informative than the one used by the Liberals.
Too bad the Liberals didn't copy Marcoux's formula of seven, two-hour meetings, each on a single policy area, on which each candidate had a total of 12 minutes to speak.
The Liberal forum also lasted two hours, but each candidate had only about 10 minutes to address all the questions of interest to party members.
The result was a series of policy sprints. What would you do about medicare, or regional development, or Kyoto, or whatever? You have one minute. Go!
As did the PQ, the Liberals avoided describing their event as a "debate," since it wasn't one. Because of the number of candidates, no one got to exchange with all the others. Rather, as in the PQ forums, the candidates exchanged with each other in groups of three chosen at random.
So the audience didn't get to hear consensus front-runners Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae debate, say, Afghanistan. Media reports on the "confrontation" between Rae and Ignatieff over recognition of Quebec as a nation made it seem more dramatic than it was, since the two candidates were never actually on stage together. The "confrontation" occurred in their successive closing statements, at the end of a very long two hours.
Still, the Liberal forum in Quebec City served a useful purpose as an oral French test for the candidates other than Stephane Dion, who, as the only franco-phone running, had the home-ice advantage.
For in 2006, one cannot be a serious contender for the leadership of the party of Pierre Trudeau without being able to communicate well enough with a quarter of the Canadian electorate to rebuild the party in Quebec.
Dion also had the loudest cheering section at the Le Capitole cabaret, along with Ignatieff's. Apparently, the former letter-writing scourge of sovereignists, who has managed to reinvent himself as an environmentalist, is not so thoroughly despised in his home province as to be without support.
Making it easy for candidates to qualify for a leadership campaign can lead to the discovery of new talent. Martha Hall Findlay has no chance of winning the Liberal leadership, but has taken advantage of the campaign to go from previously unknown to promising future star.
The real contenders in the race will be separated from the pretenders after the weekend of Sept. 29-Oct. 1, when delegates to the leadership convention in December will be chosen.
Delegates must declare before they are chosen which candidates, if any, they will support on the first ballot at the convention. So the candidates' organizations will try to pack the delegate selection meetings to get their supporters chosen.
The Liberal campaign is the first time a national party has had so many leadership candidates, all of whom can speak both languages without reading from a text. While the candidates could speak English in Sunday's forum, all spoke mostly French. That's a sign of progress to the point that bilingualism now is accepted as an essential qualification for national party leadership.
But Sunday's forum showed that of the nine anglophone candidates, only three could be considered fluent in French: Ignatieff, Rae and Joe Volpe. (As for the lone francophone's English, some anglophones have complained that Dion's accent is too strong.) Gerard Kennedy, whom some observers consider a serious contender, doesn't speak French well enough.
And some of the three-way exchanges involving the least fluent candidates were so painfully laboured and even incomprehensible that one actually felt pity for politicians.
Ignatieff spoke the best French, but with a cultured European accent, which he hardly needs to sound condescending. The most disappointing was Ken Dryden, whose French was good for a hockey player from Ontario in the 1970s - and still is.
Liberal debate in French painful to watch
Only three of the nine anglophones could be considered fluent