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Hooley’s Pub in downtown Ottawa was a sea of orange, beer pints and Layton signs as NDP supporters rallied around giant screen TVs to watch the English federal election debates Thursday night.

A contingent of CUPE members from across the country met at the pub (see photos) to take in the debates. Layton and Ottawa Centre NDP incumbent MP Paul Dewar came straight to Hooley’s from the debate to speak to the crowd and meet with supporters.

As the evening wound down, CUPE members found a quiet booth and mulled over the leaders’ performances. Here is their take on the debates:

Jack Layton and Elizabeth May had the most to gain in that debate,” says Brandon Walker of CUPE Local 54 in Ajax. “Stephane Dion didn’t participate, and Stephen Harper was…creepy.”

The group concurred that Harper’s painful grimace/smile wasn’t exactly the response they were looking for. But on hot button issues like the economy, that’s exactly what they got. “It’s like he’s scared to speak, and rightly so,” says Marianne Welsh, of Local 2305 in Halifax. “He deflects,” adds Kevin Carswell of Local 3242 in Winnipeg. “He let everyone argue against him four-to-one, but he wouldn’t engage.”

As for Layton, everyone agrees he has come a long way as a leader. “If we look at Layton in the 2005 debate and compare him with where he is now, there is a huge shift,” says Carswell.

Jack really seemed to be the aggressor,” says Walker. “If there was a point to make, he wanted to make it first.”

Shelina Hassanali, of Local 4731, works at the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter. Last March, Hassanali was an NDP candidate in her riding of Calgary-Cross in the provincial election. As a social services worker, Hassanali was pleased to see Layton address the issue of poverty. “We’re constantly seeing social services being cut. It seems like Jack is the only one speaking to that.”

While Harper is vying for a majority government, the group agrees that after tonight, his chances look slim. “Harper will get a minority government at best,” says Walker. Meanwhile, Carswell sees the NDP carving up previous Liberal territory. “If the NDP’s goal is to surpass the Liberals as the opposition, then I think they’ve succeeded. Layton really emerged as the main opposition to Harper in this debate.”