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adam radwanski

On Thursday morning, Justin Trudeau stood in a Toronto boxing gym, taping his hands and opining about the importance of being able to both deliver and take punches. Then, for the benefit of photographers and TV cameras, he got into the ring and sparred for a couple of rounds with the gym's owner.

If the Liberal Leader had underwhelmed in the election debate 12 hours later, the clips would have looked absolutely ridiculous in retrospect – mercilessly repeated in stories about his struggles, like Stockwell Day introducing himself as Canadian Alliance leader on a Jet Ski.

But Mr. Trudeau did not underwhelm. He mostly lived up to his bravado, following through on the message that he still has a lot of fight in him, and in particular delivering that message to one group that really needed to hear it.

When Mr. Trudeau took the helm of his party in 2013, it was practically an empty shell. He and the people around him proceeded to rebuild it faster than even they had anticipated, enlisting many thousands of volunteers across the country, rapidly growing their donor list, and creating a sense of shared purpose the Liberals had lacked since somewhere in the 1990s, if even then.

It's a fragile sort of confidence the Liberals have had, though, and in recent months – when a surge to first in opinion polls has been followed by a drop back to third – there has been perceptible unease among the people Mr. Trudeau brought back into the fold or lured into it anew. He seemed unprepared for Conservative attacks against him, caught off-guard by the shift in centre-left support toward Thomas Mulcair's NDP, and generally not ready for prime time. Maybe he wasn't worth their while.

His performance on Thursday evening took aim at that perception. Stephen Harper's Conservatives tried to highlight before the debate that expectations for Mr. Trudeau's basic competence had been driven so far down (not least by their own advertising) that he could easily exceed them, and indeed he was well-prepared enough to do so. But more than trying to survive, he was from the outset by far the most aggressive person on stage.

He was strongest in the first of the debate's segments, on the economy. Off the bat, he accused Mr. Harper of not feeling the effects of an emergent recession "from 24 Sussex," touting his own plan to tax the rich to fund tax cuts for the middle class. With Mr. Mulcair so passive he might have been sedated, Mr. Trudeau proceeded to frequently interrupt Mr. Harper as the Conservative Leader tried to make his own claims about the Liberals and New Democrats intending to raise taxes. Just shy of openly calling Mr. Harper a liar, a theme to which he would intermittently return, Mr. Trudeau appeared at times to be getting under his skin.

In the three segments that followed, the other leaders warmed up and Mr. Trudeau cooled down a little. But even then, he still generated as much heat as anyone else. During the segment on energy and the environment, he landed a clean hit on Mr. Harper about the correlation between sustainable development and economic benefit. And when pressed on his opposition to Canada's anti-ISIS mission, he pivoted to an impassioned attack on the government's treatment of veterans. In between, he drew Mr. Mulcair into a heated exchange about the NDP's opposition to the Clarity Act, an issue the Liberals think they can exploit in English Canada.

On a subject that has fed the perception of weakness on his part, his conditional support of the government's controversial security legislation Bill C-51, there was no way Mr. Trudeau was going to score points. (Even he all but concedes he should have handled it differently.) But he didn't shrink from explaining his rationale, none of the other leaders was especially effective in holding him to account, and he was probably closer to having dealt with it than he was at the outset.

Mr. Trudeau's performance was far from perfect. He spoke so quickly and excitedly at points that he tripped over his own words. He sometimes seemed to back away from discussions when they got deep into policy details. Along with the other opposition leaders, he inexplicably failed to land any blows against Mr. Harper during an entire segment devoted to the health of our democratic institutions. His closing statement, which aimed for soaring rhetoric about a belief in Canada's potential that Mr. Harper allegedly lacks, was awkward.

It's anyone's guess how most voters were affected by any of this, good or bad, and how much it will stick with them. Even when debates are of the more standard variety – one or two 90-minute focal points in the middle of a campaign – it is very difficult for those of us who follow politics for a living to guess their impact on those who tune in more casually. When the debate comes four days into a 78-day campaign, is in a different format, is likely seen by a relatively small audience, and is to be followed by several others a while later, it is virtually impossible.

But it's a reasonable assumption that, for Liberal partisans who have gone a very long time without anything to cheer about during an election campaign, Mr. Trudeau's aggressive performance gave them a glimpse of hope. If, on Oct. 19, their party suffers yet another electoral disappointment, that clip of Mr. Trudeau cockily sparring may be resurrected to haunt them in postmortems. For now, it stands as part of a day that offered some reminder of why they were excited by him in the first place, and could help reinvigorate them for the long slog ahead.

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