OTTAWA — They came together in Calgary for their second debate, apparently locked in a dead heat in the polls. Now the party leaders will fan out across the country again, each hoping for that elusive spurt of campaign momentum.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper will look for it with the help of the Great One, holding an event with hockey icon Wayne Gretzky in Toronto. The NDP's Tom Mulcair will head to Saskatchewan, home of party hero Tommy Douglas — the late premier often invoked during the campaign as proof balanced budgets and bold social programs can co-exist.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will return to his hometown of Montreal, trying to wrest back seats from the NDP.
The three staked their ground on economic issues during the Globe and Mail-hosted debate Thursday, but also took their shots on social policies such as immigration, child care and housing.
For Canadians who didn't watch the debate, carefully chosen clips and quotes will have been mined overnight by the respective parties for use in Facebook posts, tweets, fundraising appeals and commercials.
And much of the debate was like an extended political commercial with the messages the leaders wanted to convey.
"It clearly contrasted the styles and approaches the leaders are going to take on this question, but I'm not certain when an undecided voter is watching this, that they have enough information at this point to make a decision," said pollster David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data.
"If anything, if a leader's successful they've framed it in a certain way, now that voter's going to be looking ahead to see how they fill it in going forward."
Mulcair in particular seemed focused on using the time to communicate certain core points — his personal and professional background, his promise not to run deficits, and the general theme that his party is prudent and middle-of-the-road.
Coletto draws a comparison with former British PM Tony Blair, who took the "new" Labour party into power in the 1990s by reassuring the electorate there was nothing to fear in their economic plans.
Even Mulcair's even, slow-paced manner seemed calibrated to telegraph calm.
"While Mr. Harper thinks that everything is just fine the way it is, Mr. Trudeau is proposing to dump tens of billions of dollars in new debt on the backs of future generations," said Mulcair, who scored the prime middle podium position of the debate.
"The prime minister wants to hit the snooze button while Mr. Trudeau is hitting the panic button."
Harper emphasized his party's track record, and continued to hammer home the message that the economy needed to be protected — not put at risk by raising corporate taxes or running deficits.
He acknowledged that economic growth has been sluggish, but said Canada is in much better shape than other developed countries.
"I've never said things are great," he said, adding later: "Where would you rather have been but in Canada? Looking forward, where would you want to be but Canada?"
On the question of Syrian refugees, raised by the other leaders during a discussion about immigration, Harper accused his rivals of being soft on national security.
"These guys would have had, in the last two weeks, us throwing open our borders and literally hundreds of thousands of people coming without any kind of security check or documentation," Harper said.
Trudeau was the most aggressive during the debate, frequently interjecting when either Mulcair or Harper were responding to a question.
He too has tried to differentiate himself from his competitors by saying a Liberal government would run modest deficits for three years, in order to make a major investment in infrastructure. The message in a nutshell: bold action versus the status quo.
"If this isn't the time to invest, what would be?" asked Trudeau.
"This is the time to invest in the future of our country. Canadians know this. The only two people who don't know this are the two gentlemen on this stage."
The debate was also an opportunity for the parties to build up fresh new stores of ammunition to use against their rivals. Harper might have provided some of that when he used the term "old stock Canadians" during one response on his government's cuts to health benefits for certain refugees.
"We do not offer them a better health plan than the ordinary Canadian can receive,"he said. "That's something that most new and existing and old-stock Canadians agree with."
Trudeau raised the remark immediately after the debate was over.
"The fact that he referred to something called 'old stock Canadians' demonstrates yet again that he is choosing to divide Canadians against one another ... and is undermining new Canadians' legitimacy," said Trudeau.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was not invited to participate in the debate, but posted video responses to the questions on social media.
"Under Stephen Harper, our immigration and refugee system has been completely destroyed," she said after one exchange.
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