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Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, left to right, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole take part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau on Sept. 9, 2021.

POOL/Reuters

A restrictive format and questioners who suppressed confrontation conspired to prevent Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau from facing his Conservative tormentor – sorry, opponent – Erin O’Toole Thursday night, in a blandly passive English-language leaders’ debate.

Mr. Trudeau wanted to take on Mr. O’Toole, who threatens to unseat him as prime minister on Sept. 20, on a variety of issues: gun control, mandatory vaccinations, climate change. But he was never given much of a chance.

For the Liberal Leader, who has little more than a week to reverse his slide in the polls, it must have been incredibly frustrating. The Conservative Leader must have felt he had been blessed.

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Take one early example. The leaders were asked how they would work to secure the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Canadian captives of the Chinese government.

“We are out of step and our allies are wondering where Canada is going,” Mr. O’Toole alleged. Mr. Trudeau retorted that the Conservatives offer only empty threats: “You don’t lob tomatoes across the Pacific.”

But when the Liberal Leader tried to divert the debate by attacking Mr. O’Toole on vaccinations, moderator Shachi Kurl cut him off.

Later, in a rare moment when Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Trudeau were invited to debate each other – it was on a question related to climate change – Mr. Trudeau immediately went on the attack.

“Mr. O’Toole can’t even convince his own party that climate change is real,” Mr. Trudeau alleged. But again, he was cut off in mid-flight. The winner was Mr. O’Toole, simply because he survived.

Conservatives are gaining in the polls — here’s why

Singh, Trudeau spar over climate change, reconciliation, in final leaders’ debate

Whenever given the opportunity, Mr. Trudeau more than held his own. But, being handcuffed in his efforts to attack his Conservative opponent, he made little progress.

The stakes could not be higher. Mr. Trudeau, whose campaign has lost both momentum and popular support, is fighting for his political life. With his hopes for a majority government evaporating, his best chance for eking out a minority lies in convincing voters who have drifted over to the NDP that they must return to the Liberal fold or risk having Mr. O’Toole as prime minister.

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It’s a tried-but-only-sometimes-true method. And on Thursday night, as the minutes ticked away, Mr. Trudeau failed to launch his attack, because he so seldom had an opening.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh seemed to be having fun on debate night. He happily took shots at both Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Trudeau, confident that the Grits, on this evening at least, had failed to shake voters from the NDP tree.

Mr. O’Toole, although essentially tied with Mr. Trudeau in the polls, had much to lose. Few people expected such a strong showing from the rookie Conservative Leader over the past three weeks. A first-timer in leaders’ debates, he risked a gaffe or embarrassment that could reverse Conservative momentum. But he stayed on script, which is what he needed to do.

For all intents and purposes, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Green Leader Annamie Paul were bystanders in the debate. The Bloc Leader mostly shrugged.

Ms. Paul’s party is riven by discord and is vanishing in the polls, though “having had to crawl over a lot of broken glass to get here,” as she put it, the Green Leader delivered a poised performance that may earn her a second look. Her accusation that Mr. Trudeau had forced women out of his cabinet prompted a condescending riposte from the Liberal Leader: “I won’t take lessons on caucus management from you,” he said. Not a good moment.

All the opposition candidates pounded what has become a defining theme in this election: the lack of need for an election in the first place. Mr. Trudeau countered that voters deserve the right to choose which path the country should take postpandemic. But many voters appear to disagree.

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There were moments when the candidates talked over each other, seeking to dominate the debate. But they were quickly reined in. Most of the evening was eminently civilized, despite the best efforts of the debaters.

Leaders’ debates usually fail to shift the dynamics of election campaigns. Thursday’s almost certainly fell into that category. This election will be decided, one way or another, in its final week, on the campaign trail – not based on anything that happened Thursday night.

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