Everyone tried to trip up Thomas Mulcair at the first French-language leaders' debate of the campaign, attacking the NDP Leader on his plans to abolish the Senate, raise corporate taxes and allow women to wear a niqab at citizenship ceremonies.
Mr. Mulcair vigorously defended his 21-year record in provincial and federal politics and frequently went on the offensive, dropping the cool demeanour that he adopted in the first two English-language debates of the campaign.
Leading in the polls in Quebec, Mr. Mulcair needs to hold on to his base in the province and grow in the rest of the country to form the government on Oct. 19. But the Liberal Party has set its sights on dozens of NDP seats in the greater Montreal area and western Quebec as part of its bid to come back to power, while the Conservatives are focusing their efforts on winning back seats that they lost to the NDP in Quebec City four years ago.
Mr. Mulcair focused most of his attacks on Stephen Harper, accusing the Conservative Leader of having failed to protect Canadians' jobs and of spreading lies about the NDP's platform.
"We have to unite behind a single objective, and that is to have a progressive government and get rid of Stephen Harper's Conservative government. That is my priority," he said.
Mr. Mulcair accused Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of having an infrastructure plan that would leave a huge debt on the backs of future generations, saying the Liberal Leader has "a long list of projects, and for everything else there is MasterCard." He went on to accuse Mr. Trudeau of "having people write the words that you say."
Mr. Trudeau said there was an urgency to create jobs by spending on public works projects immediately. "People are stuck in traffic today, not in five mandates down the road," he said.
He tried to use every opportunity, whatever the question, to present his plan to increase infrastructure budgets by going into deficit for three years, raise taxes on the wealthy and boost benefits to most families with children. The Liberals have found that a majority of voters in Quebec have yet to tune in to the election campaign, and felt the need to stick to the basics of their platform in the debate.
"We have a plan to spur growth in the country," Mr. Trudeau said. He added that the Liberals would lift 60,000 children out of poverty, saying it was the equivalent of a full Olympic Stadium.
The Liberal Leader also accused Mr. Mulcair of saying different things in French and in English on the national unity debate, but Mr. Mulcair shot back that he would continue to argue that a requirement for a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one should apply in a future referendum on Quebec secession.
"We are consistent on this issue," Mr. Mulcair said.
Mr. Harper has struggled to break through in Quebec over the years, but he sought to persuade voters in central and eastern parts of the province to add to his party's current tally of five seats by sticking to his platform of lower taxes. He also touted his government's role in trying to force everyone to show their faces at citizenship ceremonies, an issue that has struck a chord with the Quebec electorate.
"I will never tell my young daughter that a woman needs to cover her face because she is a woman. That is not my Canada," the Conservative Leader said.
Mr. Mulcair accused Mr. Harper of appealing to the fears of voters and using divisive tactics to stay in power.
"Stop going after women. You should target their oppressors if you think there is oppression," the NDP Leader said.
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said the first private-member's bill that he would propose in the House of Commons would force all women to remove their veils when they vote or swear the oath of citizenship, saying the equality of men and women is an essential value to uphold in a democracy.
The Bloc is the wild card in this battle as it creates three– and four-way races in the mostly francophone ridings that it lost in 2011 at the hands of the NDP's Orange Wave. In his first foray in the national campaign, Mr. Duceppe accused "Tom Mulcair" of favouring oil sands development when he is speaking in English, and "Thomas Mulcair" of sounding less favourable in French.
"Does Tom sometimes speak to Thomas?" the Bloc Leader asked.
He finished by calling on voters to return to his party. "You can count on me, I'm counting on you," Mr. Duceppe said.
The Green Party's Elizabeth May was the fifth leader at the debate, but her difficulties in French forced her to stay on the sidelines during many exchanges. Still, she said the debate over the niqab was a "false issue."
"What is the impact of the niqab on the economy, on climate change, on the unemployed?" Ms. May asked.
The debate was broadcast live on the CBC's French-language network, while the second French-language debate of the campaign, next Friday, will be shown live on the TVA private network.
Thursday's debate was held as polls show the New Democrats are struggling to maintain momentum in Quebec, bleeding support to their three main rivals in recent weeks. According to the latest Léger poll, the NDP has the support of 38 per cent of voters in Quebec, down eight points over three weeks. Meanwhile, the Liberals are up two points to 22 per cent, the Bloc has increased support two points to 20 per cent and the Conservatives are up five points to 18 per cent.