For full Globe coverage of the debate, click here.
ANGRY (OR AT LEAST ANGRIER) TOM IS BACK
Even Thomas Mulcair's officials concede that, early in this election campaign, they may have overdone it with getting their leader to tone down his previously acerbic public persona – resulting, among other things, in a passive performance in the first leaders' debate back in August.
For full Globe coverage of the debate, click here
Let nobody accuse the NDP Leader of being overly sedate this time. Although he struggled a bit early to explain his cap-and-trade plans for carbon emissions in a digestible way, his tone was sharper and more forceful from the outset, and his criticisms of Stephen Harper's record more impassioned.
But it was Justin Trudeau for whom Mr. Mulcair reserved his sharpest barbs. Some of them, as when he seized on Mr. Trudeau's recent claim that many small businesses are used as tax shelters for the rich and accused him of knowing that from personal experience, were clearly planned. Others, such as implying the Liberal Leader is a pothead when Mr. Trudeau used the term "puff of smoke," were off the cuff. All of them made clear that, after letting Mr. Trudeau take the fight for left-of-centre voters to him early in the campaign, Mr. Mulcair is now prepared to give as good as he can get.
While Mr. Mulcair appears to be getting good reviews from pundits for his performance, it will be interesting to see how voters – deemed to be unenthusiastic about his combative demeanour early in his leadership – will react. But the manner he had on Thursday evening by all accounts and appearances comes more naturally to him than forcing smiles after every sentence, and there is something to be said for being genuine.
TRUDEAU NEEDS TO TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Justin Trudeau's performance was far from a disaster. The leader with the most risk of a few unguarded words setting back his campaign, because they could create clips that would reinforce his opponents' tireless efforts to brand him a lightweight, managed to avoid any serious gaffes. And he could reasonably claim to have struck a clearer contrast with Mr. Harper on policy issues than did Mr. Mulcair.
But in terms of how he presented himself, Mr. Trudeau probably did not do much to assuage the fears of those who worry about his readiness to lead the country. Increasingly breathless as the debate went on, stumbling over his words as he tried to blurt out talking points and often trying and failing to interrupt the other two leaders, he arguably come off less substantive than his opponents despite actually having a fair amount of policy to talk about.
Mr. Trudeau may have struggled a bit with higher expectations than he had in the first debate, when he was able to catch the other leaders off guard with his aggressiveness. The relatively small amount of time given to each segment may have also exacerbated his tendency to be hyperactive in high-pressure situations. But after spending much less time preparing him for this debate than for the first one, Mr. Trudeau's team may need to work a little more with him in advance of the remaining three.
HARPER CAN STILL LOOK STATESMANLIKE
It was unclear heading into this debate whether Stephen Harper would be able to maintain the approach he has used during the past couple of campaigns, which involves trying to appear above the fray while his opponents take shots at him. Unlike in those other races, when he entered debates in the driver's seat, his Conservatives are currently polling somewhere around 30 per cent – more or less on par with the other parties, and low enough that he seemingly couldn't afford just to sit back.
If anything, though, the unusual three-way race helped Mr. Harper appear more prime ministerial. During the many portions of the debate when Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau duked it out to establish themselves as the primary change agents, Mr. Harper bit his tongue. And when he did engage, it was to calmly make the case for why the status quo is actually pretty good.
Mr. Harper is such a take-it or leave-it proposition, after this long in office, that there's only a small sliver of the electorate that would decide whether to back him based on his campaign performance. But for whichever few swing voters fit into that category, it couldn't hurt that he played against type to generally be the most pleasant person on stage.
ALL THE LEADERS NEED TO TALK MORE TO CANADIANS, AND LESS TO EACH OTHER
Midway through the debate, Mr. Harper responded to a question about a possible real-estate bubble by saying the country's housing market should be celebrated. It seemed an obvious opportunity for Mr. Trudeau, who was next in line to speak and has had some good moments in this campaign arguing that Mr. Harper has lost touch with people who haven't spent the past decade living at 24 Sussex, to explain why things are different for young families living in the Toronto or Vancouver areas (both crucial battlegrounds) and unable to afford even starter homes. But he didn't act on it.
That was not really an isolated incident. Entertaining though it often was, the debate frequently involved three politicians taking shots at each other's alleged deficiencies or hypocrisies without relating those positions – or their alternatives – to real-world consequences for people watching at home.
It's easy for federal leaders living in bubbles to lose perspective at the best of times, and all the more so in the midst of a marathon campaign. But they don't do themselves any favours when they seem more interested in scoring points against each other than talking to the rest of us.