TORONTO — NDP leader Tom Mulcair struggled in his first election debate to inject himself into free-for-all exchanges on energy and the economy, though he managed a few mild zingers directed the prime minister's way.
The often passionate orator kept "Angry Tom" at bay, but in so doing kept a near-constant smile on his face, even while making dire predictions — a look some viewers on social media described as "creepy."
Mulcair wore a grin while saying Harper's energy policies are "hurting Canada's international reputation" and while discussing the growth of Canada's debt under Harper's leadership.
During the energy segment, Mulcair appeared hesitant to jump in, leaving the economic debates to take place largely between Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
But when he spoke up, Mulcair made relatively succinct points, talked about concrete policies and hammered the prime minister on the economy while getting in a few jabs.
Harper is the first prime minister who can say "which one?" when asked about a recession under his watch, Mulcair said.
The economy has been contracting for five months, which means Canada is one month away from the technical definition of another recession, he added.
"I'm not denying that," Harper replied.
Later in the debate, Mulcair was put on the defensive, first by Green party Leader Elizabeth May pressing him for a firm position on the Kinder Morgan pipeline, then by both Trudeau and Harper on Quebec sovereignty.
Mulcair came under attack from both flanks on his position that a bare majority of 50 per cent plus one vote should be sufficient to trigger negotiations on Quebec's separation from Canada.
"You're trying to throw gasoline on a fire that isn't even burning," Harper said.
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