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It was Cautious Tom and Fighting Justin. Their positions in the polls drove their tactics in the debate.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was not quite the aggressive prosecutor he is reputed to be. It was Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau who was out quickly to land blows.

Thursday's debate was always going to be the preliminary, a contest in August, 73 days from the vote, more likely to set an early tone than clinch the outcome. And it was always clear Conservative Leader Stephen Harper would emerge as one side of the election ledger: the veteran incumbent. The question is whether he will have a main challenger, and Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau were vying to carry the standard.

The NDP Leader sought to look less pugnacious and more prime ministerial. Cautious Tom means Calm Tom, and that is what the NDP wanted, but he risked looking like he had settled into front-runner's caution too quickly. The Liberal Leader sometimes tried too hard, but he mixed it up.

Mr. Trudeau turned answers into attacks. He spoke over Mr. Harper to taunt "nobody believes you on the environment." When Green Party Leader Elizabeth May asked Mr. Harper why he has not addressed internal trade barriers, Mr. Trudeau jumped in to say Mr. Harper could not because he will not meet with provincial premiers.

For Mr. Trudeau, it was always a game of showing he could stand toe-to-toe with heavyweights. That is why his handlers staged a pre-debate photo op at a boxing gym. By making the debate about combativeness, the Liberals moved the goals a little.

It worked, as far as it went. The question that had been teed up in advance for Mr. Trudeau, not least by Conservative ads – is he ready? – seemed to beg him to show he has gravitas. He decided instead to try to show he has fight. After a slide in the polls and opponents' ridicule, he was in danger of being painted as incapable of keeping up. Turning combative was a way to turn the narrative.

And gravitas? He tried to deal with the "ready" question by talking about his plan, but viewers did not get it laid out. For the most part, he expressed it in comebacks. When Mr. Mulcair said his proposed $15 federal minimum wage would give 100,000 people a raise, Mr. Trudeau countered that his plan would lift 315,000 kids out of poverty – just how was not explained. But there was fight, and even if he sometimes seemed to be trying too hard, that meant he was not being set back on his heels. In the first segment on the economy, it was Mr. Trudeau making his opponents ill at ease.

Mr. Mulcair started more traditionally. He got his talking points, like $15-a-day child care, into his answers on the economy. When Macleans' Paul Wells, the moderator, posed a question, he would reset into speech-making.

In open debate, he reverted to a little more edge. He confidently handled himself on energy and the environment, even with Ms. May needling him to oppose Kinder Morgan's plan to expand a pipeline in B.C., and Mr. Harper arguing the NDP Leader would turn down any energy project that came his way.

But his eyes flashed mainly when he fought off Mr. Trudeau's accusation that he would lower the bar for a Quebec separation referendum by undoing the Clarity Act to set the winning margin at 50-per-cent-plus one. "I fought for Canada my whole life," he said, before challenging Mr. Trudeau repeatedly to name his own winning "number."

It was perhaps the most heated clash. While he pressed Mr. Trudeau for a number, the Liberal Leader replied, "Nine," asserting that is the number of Supreme Court judges who said a simple majority is not necessarily enough. And Mr. Harper stepped in to defend Mr. Trudeau, and accuse Mr. Mulcair of raising the whole issue to "satisfy the separatist elements within the NDP."

But for the Conservative leader, it was largely a defensive mission accomplished. The surprise was that the debate on the economy set him off balance, when all three opponents accused him of denying a recession and racking up deficits. He looked annoyed, and struggled to keep up the smile. But he settled, and looked more comfortable as the debate moved on.

But this debate was notable largely for the fight to be his challenger. Mr. Mulcair claimed that role, but was too cautious to clinch it. Mr. Trudeau has let it slip, and decided showing fight was the best way to stop the slide.