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Stephen Harper stood aside and let Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau duke it out in a leaders' debate that revealed this federal election is actually two elections in one.

For full Globe coverage of the debate, click here.

The first election is about whether Mr. Harper should be re-elected. In a calm and mostly low-key performance, the Conservative Leader made his case that raising taxes or running deficits is no way to protect economic security.

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But he was often a bystander, as the NDP and Liberal leaders fought over who was both the most responsible and most progressive candidate in the second election: Who should replace Mr. Harper if he is to be replaced?

In that contest, Mr. Trudeau was by far the most aggressive leader on the stage. But he was not always the most effective.

That Mr. Harper low-bridged his performance was a bit of a surprise. The Conservative Leader launched this campaign a month early, hoping to entrench the message that only his proven leadership can be trusted to guide the country in challenging economic times. Instead, he was forced off script by the Mike Duffy trial, the economic downturn and Syrian refugees.

Now, finally, he had an entire night dedicated to his favourite topic – the economy – and a chance to relaunch a campaign that has misfired as often as not. But Mr. Harper refused to raise the temperature or his voice, defending his record and criticizing his opponents' but mostly declining to engage in verbal fisticuffs.

The Conservative campaign has very little new to offer: a tax credit here, some targeted spending there. Mr. Harper, who is almost certainly fighting his last federal election, wants you to vote for him just because – just because you did in the past, just because he is a safe choice, just because on his watch, nothing much will change.

"We are the only party not talking about raising any of your taxes," he said, in one iteration of an oft-repeated trope.

But a majority of voters, according to all polls, are not buying that message. For them, a decade of Harper is enough – more than enough for some. And so this debate was also about which of the two leaders might replace him.

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Each needed to demonstrate that he had a plan to guide the economy and the chops to deal with the inevitable turbulence that lies ahead. Each needed to prove that he was a prime minister-in-waiting and the other wasn't.

In that contest, it must be said, Mr. Trudeau did not always come off well. He was prone to revert to message track – scripted statements that are prepared well in advance. Every politician uses them, but with Mr. Trudeau, it was sometimes too obvious.

How many times did he offer the specious claim that the Harper government had the worst record in jobs and growth since the Great Depression and the Second World War? And who really believes that?

Beyond that, he had a tendency to interrupt, to talk over, to raise the temperature. Mr. Mulcair, in contrast, sometimes sounded condescending, but if there is a political elixir known as "prime ministerial," Mr. Mulcair seemed to know the recipe.

Noting that Mr. Trudeau had promised to balance the federal budget, only to revert to a policy of deficits, Mr. Mulcair urged Mr. Trudeau to "pick one. You just can't choose them both." You don't easily come back from that kind of zinger.

Despite a bump here and dip there, all three parties have essentially been tied in the polls for weeks. Did the debate break anything open? Unlikely.

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But more debates lie ahead. And then there is Thanksgiving, when Canadian families gather together and take stock. There is plenty of time for all three leaders to surge ahead – or fall back.

It seems hard to believe, but things are just getting started.

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