MONTREAL — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau tried to focus Friday's final French-language leaders' debate on the economy, make deficits a wedge issue and paint himself as the only alternative to Stephen Harper on matters of money.
But he often found himself on the defensive.
Right from the start, Trudeau tried to portray NDP Leader Tom Mulcair as in cahoots with Harper, turning their balanced-budget promises against them. Trudeau would run deficits for three years to spend on infrastructure and boost the economy.
"Mr. Mulcair, you made bad choices. You chose to balance Mr. Harper's budget at all costs, which means you can't invest right now in the help that Canadians and Quebecers need,'' Trudeau said in his first words of the night.
Mulcair fired back, pointing out that the Liberals voted for Conservative budgets and the new anti-terrorism law.
"You supported — by voting in favour of — numerous Harper budgets,'' Mulcair said.
He also attacked one of Trudeau's weakest flanks: his failure to oppose the Conservative government's controversial anti-terror bill, which significantly broadened security measures without increasing oversight.
"I can assure you I never voted for one of Mr. Harper's budgets. You supported him on Bill C-51, the biggest attack on rights and freedoms in Canada since the Liberals imposed the War Measures Act in 1970.''
Mulcair and Trudeau hope to win the hearts and minds of Quebecers who want to oust the Conservatives, but are unsure which opposition party to support. Polls suggest a close race, but also suggest NDP numbers have softened in recent days.
Trudeau exceeded most analysts' expectations in previous debates by holding his own against the more experienced politicians on the stage. He maintained a high energy level Friday night, but occasionally stumbled as he sped up in cross-talk with his opponents.
At one point, he was questioned by Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe about the previous Liberal government's funding for humanitarian aid. His ensuing slip of the tongue —a confusion between the French words "mon ami'' and "mon amour'' —was greeted with laughter.
"You'd like to return to the past. History lessons, my love —my friend.''
He later joked that he'd have some explaining to do when he got home.
Trudeau's combativeness increased as the night wore on. He was cautioned by the moderator at one point to let Harper finish a response. He was later rebuked by Mulcair during a spirited exchange.
"Nobody is interrupting you, Mr. Trudeau. Let me finish,'' Mulcair said.
Trudeau was also aggressive in an exchange with Harper, when he deviated from the given topic and challenged the prime minister to state his personal position on abortion. The moderator tried in vain to stop the two leaders from talking over each other.
"Our position for the last 10 years is that we have no intention to reopen the debate,'' Harper said.
"What is your personal position? Will you defend women's rights?'' Trudeau fired back.
Trudeau was unapologetic for his approach. He was asked afterward whether his aggression might put off some voters.
"One of the things that's probably off-putting is, my opponents regularly don't answer the questions they've been asked,'' he said.
"I am very passionate about this country and about the things that I stand for, and I'm not unwilling to show people that I feel strongly about the issues that we're debating.''
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