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David McLaughlin is a former Conservative Party chief of staff at the federal and provincial levels.


Four debates, not one, took place Thursday night.

Understanding this is key to divining meaning from within that collective two-hour moment.

The first was the debate about Conservative Leader Stephen Harper. This election is first and foremost a referendum on retaining Mr. Harper in his current job of Prime Minister. Few Canadians are indifferent to him. His polarizing style of government and politics is central to the Conservative Party's relentless quest for the "minority plus" sweet spot of voters that makes up his winning coalition.

Two questions arise from this. Did Mr. Harper repel any of those voters? And did either of the two opposition leaders detach any of them by successfully offering themselves as alternatives? The answer is no.

Mr. Harper stayed true to his economic and security themes that have taken him this far. Meanwhile, that very polarization leaves little room for either the Liberals or the NDP to become a comfortable alternative to disaffected Conservative voters since what they offer is, as of now, too radically different for their taste. Mr. Harper wants to keep it that way.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair came closest to cracking the carapace with his argument that sticking with Mr. Harper's economic plan was itself risky – striving to turn the "risk and reckless" label Mr. Harper has put on him back on Mr. Harper. He made some ground here.

While Mr. Harper did not repel any of his current voters, he did not compel new ones his way. Not yet anyway, since he is waiting out the result of the second debate, the one for the left in Canadian politics. This was the debate between Mr. Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

If polarization is the "new normal" in Canadian politics then the Liberals and the NDP need to get in on the act. Trouble is, one or the other is always in the way. Ascendancy of one will necessarily come at the expense of the other making this debate all the more fierce. If ridding the country of Mr. Harper's Conservatives is the most important animating goal for voters on the left, then the Mulcair-Trudeau debate confrontations were far more important to watch than anything Mr. Harper said.

By this yardstick, Mr. Mulcair seeks to present himself as the alternative to Mr. Harper while Mr. Trudeau seeks to present himself as the alternative to Mr. Mulcair. This matters in the election ahead.

If we are heading toward a minority Conservative government with another election a year or two down the road, neither leader can afford to be the one to falter for the mantle of alternative leader. While they both proclaim this election is what they are fighting for, both are actually being forced into a longer war of attrition. Thursday night's debate was the main opening salvo on that front.

No such illusions – or delusions – fill the head of perhaps the best performer of the night, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. Not only did she look like she was having the most fun on stage, she made the most of every moment to try to say something meaningful on the topic at hand. This was the third debate. A debate about whether she could compel herself back into another debate by sheer "mattering."

She did matter. Good interventions for the most part, and the longest corporate memory of anyone on stage. But without another debate for her, that performance will evaporate like a will of the wisp in this abnormal, unseasonable, unreasonably lengthy campaign. Hence, her closing statement, which was the equivalent of "please write cards and letters to get me invited back."

The fourth, final, and most meaningful debate was not about the leaders but about capturing the campaign narrative and that elusive quicksilver of all elections: momentum. With fewer Canadians watching than usual, in the dead of summer, what is said about the leaders' performances in the media matters most of all.

In such a long campaign, a line in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address – "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here …" – could well apply to this first, early debate.

But it did matter.

Today, the campaign narrative is slightly changed. Mr. Trudeau contended on stage. Mr. Mulcair is less implausible in the position of prime minister. Mr. Harper retains his political force and the leadership standard to best. And Ms. May probably won her own seat Thusday night, if nothing else.

Not a meaningless night after all.