In retrospect, the Conservative line against Justin Trudeau heading into this election campaign – the one in which Stephen Harper's Conservatives invested many millions of advertising dollars – may not have been quite as brilliant as everyone thought.
The point of the Tories' "not ready" attacks against the Liberal Leader, beyond immediately driving down his poll numbers, was to at least plant in the backs of Canadians' minds that Mr. Trudeau was a laughable lightweight. All they needed, once the campaign began in earnest, was for him to confirm it – which based on his previous performance, particularly his tendency to say ill-considered things in unscripted situations, seemed a very good prospect.
But Mr. Trudeau has refused to oblige. Instead, he has defied the Conservatives' expectations and in turn the ones that they set for voters, by turning to his advantage situations that were all but designed for him to embarrass himself. And there has been no better or more crucial example of that than what happened Monday night, in a debate on foreign policy that Liberals must have viewed with some trepidation when it first appeared on their calendars.
The shift to having more leaders' debates in this campaign than in previous ones, initiated primarily by the Conservatives, was clearly aimed in large part at exposing Mr. Trudeau. In events most Canadians don't watch live, a few clips of him saying something stupid would do the trick. But his performances in the first three, including a Globe and Mail debate dedicated entirely to the economy, were at a minimum competent.
And in the best remaining chance to commit some horrific gaffe as he navigated his way through nearly two hours of discussing Canada's place in the world, he looked perhaps the farthest he ever has from the caricature of him that his opponents painted.
By far the more passionate of the two opposition leaders on stage, he managed to give fired-up critiques of Conservative policy, including the treatment of refugees, without veering into the sort of "whip out our F-35s" glibness that plagued him pre-campaign.
Mr. Trudeau took on Mr. Harper on whether the government should be able to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terror-related crimes, which could easily be a political loser when arguing against, and at least scored a draw. On Arctic sovereignty, on trade policy, on support for Israel – on which he offered a single, sharp line about all parties having the same position and only the Tories using the issue as a "domestic political football" – he held his own.
In his most memorable exchange with Thomas Mulcair, Mr. Trudeau somehow managed to present his (blatantly political) quasi-support for the government's anti-terror legislation as a matter of principle.
When the NDP Leader invoked the memory of the War Measures Act, Mr. Trudeau used it for one of the night's most clippable moments, as he embraced his father's record in a way he has not done previously. Pointing out that it was the anniversary of Pierre Trudeau's death may have been unfair, since it's unlikely Mr. Mulcair had any idea when he negatively invoked his memory, but it was effective.
Perhaps most important, through all of this, there were no gaffes. When the highlight of the night for the Conservatives' war room was some audience members tittering when the moderator asked Mr. Trudeau about standing up to Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Leader evidently didn't offer a great deal of fodder. (Other audience members later laughed when Mr. Harper claimed to have a good relationship with Barack Obama, which suggests there were partisans from all sides waiting for their opportunity.)
To an uninitiated viewer watching the entire debate or clips of it, Mr. Trudeau would not have seemed some force of nature relative to the other leaders. But the problem, for his opponents, is that Canadians aren't uninitiated. They were conditioned to expect a bumbling idiot. Someone who – as Mr. Harper's spokesman put it before the first debate in what has proved to be as much of a gaffe as anything Mr. Trudeau has committed lately – would impress just by remembering to put his pants on. By being pretty decent at what he does, he has fashioned a comeback story.
Despite all the money they spent setting expectations, the Tories might not suffer the most for Mr. Trudeau defying them. There are Liberal-Conservative swing voters they expected their attacks to put in their camp, and if those voters don't wind up there that could be enough to deny them a majority. But the nearly one-third of the electorate firmly behind Mr. Harper tends to have an allergic reaction to the Liberal Leader, no matter how relatively well he performs. And Mr. Harper was strong enough in this debate to help rally those voters behind him.
The New Democrats' problem is worse. They came into this campaign clearly believing that Mr. Trudeau, courtesy of those Conservative attacks and his own missteps, was incapable of being taken seriously. Their strategy, which has resulted in a cautious platform and an effort by their leader to assure rather than inspire, is to present Mr. Mulcair as the only adult alternative to Mr. Harper. Now that Mr. Trudeau has fairly convincingly presented himself as also being an adult, while simultaneously coming off as more of an agent of change, the NDP Leader's offer is a bit lacking.
Occasionally during this campaign, Mr. Trudeau has shown flashes of what his rivals expected from him. Perhaps the most notable example came in an interview that aired this past weekend on Global Television, when he offered the peculiar assessment that budget deficits "are a way of measuring the kind of growth and the kind of success that a government is actually able to create." (Presumably, he meant to say "balance sheets" rather than "deficits," but it shouldn't be left to others to explain it for him.)
Those flubs, though, have been too few and far between for the other parties' liking. There are still nearly three weeks left in this long campaign, including one more debate, for Mr. Trudeau to do something that puts him back in that frame his opponents set for him.
In the meanwhile, it's hard not to wonder if readiness – for office, but also implicitly for nights like the one on Monday – was really the best case to be made against him.