A few of Li's canned one-liners fell flat. His crack about how Xi's first wife living in London testifies to his opponent's disdain for "Chinese exceptionalism" bombed in the 95,000-person auditorium. Li's puzzling decision to break into a few lines of Shakespeare -- in fluent English -- was "intended to show his chops on foreign policy," according to a source close to the Li campaign. But it inadvertently played into the shadowy third-party ads seeking to exploit rumors that the worldly Li was not born in China. ("Disaster," said one Li aide.)
Xi's apparent debate victory could not come at a better time for the former Shanghai Communist Party secretary, whose campaign has been reeling after a bootleg video surfaced in September showing the candidate dismissing supporters of former Chairman Mao Zedong as "noodle eaters" at an off-the-record fundraising dinner in Shenzhen. The 350,000-renminbi-per-plate dinner was hosted by Qian Jinjin, a controversial casino magnate with alleged ties to the Macau underworld.
The Li campaign used the video, which has been viewed more than 25 million times on Youku, to boost its support with the key fangnu ("house slaves") demographic of young urban voters who can't afford to buy their own property and often subsist on cheap instant noodles. One Li advisor said the campaign is "exploring" whether the dinner violated China's strict campaign-fundraising laws.
The video fit perfectly with the profile the Li campaign has been building of Xi -- as a scion of privilege who looks down on ordinary Chinese.
"After last night, nobody cares about that damn video," read an SMS from an exultant Xi aide. But it's not clear whether many in Li's base of blue-collar voters are ready to change horses.
"I wouldn't care if he spoke Japanese" as long as it helped with the slowing economy, tweeted Zhang Dige, a part-time taxi driver with 3 million followers on Weibo who said he plans to vote for Li in November. "I'm sick of these [expletive deleted] princelings."
Li's advisors also attribute his brief September bump to a series of ads he ran in the battleground provinces of Hubei, Shaanxi, and Jilin, highlighting Xi's earlier support for disgraced Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai. The ad features a grainy, black-and-white photo of Xi and Bo with a baritone voiceover intoning ominously, "Xi flip-flopped on Bo; he's flip-flopped on the economy. Is this the man you want running the People's Republic?" (A spokesman for the Xi campaign called the ads "grossly misleading," and the Xinhua fact-checking department has rated some of Li's claims "four broken chopsticks.")
After Wednesday night's debate, however, the Xi camp is riding high, insiders say, and experts caution that the likelihood of an "October surprise" is slim. "We knew that if Xi took off the gloves, winning the debate would be easier than beating a donkey," Cui Nongye, Xi's chief of outreach to rural voters, said in the spin room after the debate as he munched on a spicy pig trotter.
It remains to be seen, however, whether newspaper endorsements like that of the Global Times, which announced Thursday it was supporting Xi, will sway undecided voters, who are largely illiterate. "China has more than 5,000 years of history; now in the 21st century, it is a historical inevitability that China not become one of several equally balanced global powers," the nationalistic broadsheet's endorsement said. "It needs a leader who doesn't apologize for China."