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The Globe and Mail is hosting a debate on the economy among the leaders of the three main political parties on Thursday at 8 pm (ET). Click here for more details.

When he takes the stage in Calgary for The Globe and Mail's debate on the economy, Justin Trudeau will face his toughest test of this campaign so far.

Whether he will rise to the occasion or fall into traps his rivals try to set is the biggest political question heading into Thursday evening's showdown. And how it is answered could dramatically affect the rest of the race.

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The story of the first half of this long campaign, in terms of how the parties stack up against each other, was Mr. Trudeau's Liberals clawing their way back in. At risk of being marginalized at the outset, they managed – courtesy of a reasonably strong public performance by their leader, and probably more so because they spent a lot of money airing effective television advertising – to pull roughly even with the NDP and Conservatives in most polls.

Competing more against Mr. Trudeau than against each other for the biggest pools of swing voters, both Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper need to do something to drive the Liberals back down again. That something is to reinforce the perception that Mr. Trudeau is a lightweight.

In the campaign's only other leaders' debate so far, in early August, Mr. Trudeau had it relatively easy. Conservative advertising had reduced expectations to the point where, as Mr. Harper's spokesperson put it, the Liberal Leader could exceed them by turning up with his pants on. Many months of behind-the-scenes practice helped him do more than that, seemingly catching his opponents off guard with his aggressive tone.

This time, expectations will be higher. The policies Mr. Trudeau has used to set himself apart, notably embracing the idea of deficit spending, offer fresh ammunition for branding him a risk. The other leaders will be more aggressive toward him.

That applies especially to Mr. Mulcair. It can be tricky for Liberals and New Democrats to attack each other, because it could irritate left-of-centre voters who would rather they target the Conservatives, and until recently the New Democrats left it to the Tories to do the heavy lifting on Mr. Trudeau. But last week at a rally in downtown Toronto, his voice dripping with contempt as he accused Mr. Trudeau of not being serious in his principles, Mr. Mulcair signalled a shift.

Conversations with NDP officials suggest more of the same on Thursday evening. One of Mr. Mulcair's go-to topics, Mr. Trudeau's failure to oppose the Tories' anti-terrorism bill, will be difficult to work into an economic debate. But he will surely lean on several others, such as accusing Mr. Trudeau of abandoning a national child-care program and an increased minimum wage for federally regulated workers. With the NDP now having released a (vague) costing document for its campaign promises, Mr. Mulcair will probably demand to know where the Liberals' version is, charging that Mr. Trudeau's plans for four years of deficit spending would lead to big cuts later.

Mr. Harper will probably try to maintain the above-the-fray air he has usually cultivated in debates. But it would be shocking if he did not at least try to goad Mr. Trudeau into mistakes that fit into the frame the Tories have spent so long setting.

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The scary part for the Liberals is that it might take just one such mistake to define Mr. Trudeau's performance. Many voters see the debates only in the form of the most noteworthy clips played later. That is dangerous for any leader, but of the three, Mr. Trudeau has the greatest tendency to say clumsy things, and he could suffer most for such a moment because perceived competence is the area of his biggest liability.

In the first debate, Mr. Trudeau was able to generate clips that had the opposite effect. If he can achieve that again, or even just have it be a wash, it will further mess up the calculations of opponents who counted on the "not ready" perception to hold.

But this time, members of his campaign team concede, Mr. Trudeau has had less time to prepare. Their gains of the past six weeks hanging in the balance, Liberals will have good reason to hold their breath.

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