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analysis

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper wasted no time in Thursday's debate telling Canadians that both his opponents are similarly risky. But the key rivalry was Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau vying to look very different from each other.

For full Globe coverage of the debate, click here.

The NDP Leader, who was cautious in the first debate six weeks ago, displayed more passion and fewer smiles in the leaders debate on the economy – and tagged Mr. Trudeau as "reckless." The Liberal Leader took some time to attack Mr. Harper's economic record, but spent more arguing that Mr. Mulcair's plans won't do much to change things. And he seemed to talk a lot.

If emphasizing difference was the test, Mr. Trudeau was on offence, a bundle of energy driving home the message: He pushed his way onto the camera with repeated underlining of his interventionist message about stimulus spending – even playing the negative aspect to drive it home, repeatedly telling the audience, "We are going to run three deficits."

Mr. Mulcair's main message of safe change and balanced budgets seemed to serve most often as a defence. He wielded it as a shield against both opponents but he rarely drove it forward, on attack, as a reason to vote NDP, instead letting other pledges, like his party's child-care plan, serve as the selling points.

The battle between Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, especially on this issue, the economy, is clearly crucial as the election campaign moves into a higher rhythm.

Mr. Harper doesn't claim the same formidable edge on the economy he once did – but neither of his opponents has seized an advantage. Voters think they know how Mr. Harper will deal with the economy, but when it comes to Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau they're still asking questions. This was an opportunity to get an edge.

Both leaders knew it. At the mid-point in the debate, the two were wagging fingers at each other, inaudibly shouting over their rival's words in an exchange on the federal minimum wage. But the important clashes came when one could be heard driving home the differences with the other.

Mr. Mulcair accused Mr. Trudeau of panic, of flitting between economic ideas, and a reckless willingness to ride up deficits and debt. "Mr. Trudeau is proposing to dump tens of billions of dollars of debt onto future generations," he warned.

Mr. Trudeau accused Mr. Mulcair of offering little to get the economy moving now, of being so restrained by balancing the budget he won't help the economy. "Mr. Mulcair talks about putting things off for three, five, 10, 20 years," he said. "That's not what we need."

Each was trying, in a way, to beat the other by jumping the hurdle that Mr. Harper has set: Mr. Mulcair was working to reassure voters that his NDP doesn't have scary, big-spending plans that it would put in place if the party ever takes office. Mr. Trudeau was trying to show he's not a lightweight by showing he has a plan.

And both were also trying to get out positions that might still surprise many voters: Mr. Mulcair emphasizing safe hands, balanced budgets and restraint, while Mr. Trudeau stressed intervention, calling for stimulus spending to boost the economy and accepting deficits to make that possible.

Mr. Mulcair, a sharp debater, scored most of his points against Mr. Trudeau on the volley, arguing that Mr. Trudeau used to favour balanced budgets, just a few months ago. "When your advisers tell you one thing and another that's totally contradictory, pick one," he said.

If those voters who won't cast a ballot for Mr. Harper are looking for safe alternatives, then Mr. Trudeau probably overplayed his hand. He pushed at the same button throughout much of the debate. He turned a question on a possible housing bubble into an issue of incomes, and then started talking about stimulus spending and economic growth again. But if they like that gamble – that he would spend big now to stimulate the economy, deficits be damned, then he succeeded in underlining his difference.