08/06/2015 10:11 EDT | Updated 08/06/2016 05:59 EDT

Federal Election 2015: Harper Fends Off Attacks On Economic Performance At Debate

TORONTO — Stephen Harper found himself playing defence Thursday as his rivals tried to pick apart his economic record during the election campaign’s first leaders’ debate.

The Conservative leader’s opponents attacked him for leading a government that ran eight straight budgetary deficits through one recession and an ongoing downturn that some believe is a second recession.

At one point, even Harper himself appeared to agree that Canada was, perhaps, in a recession.

The Tory leader managed to maintain his composure during the barrage, but NDP Leader Tom Mulcair did get the normally optimistic Harper to acknowledge that recent data showed the economy had taken a turn for the worse.

The exchange began when Mulcair pressed Harper on the fact government statistics revealed that the economy contracted for five straight months, leaving it one month shy of a technical definition of a recession.

"But according to a lot of observers, we’re already in a recession," Mulcair said.

Harper immediately cut in with a response: "Mr. Mulcair, I’m not denying that."

"What I am saying is that that contraction is almost exclusively in the energy sector. The rest of the economy is growing."

Harper countered by telling Mulcair that increasing taxes, debt and spending levels by tens of billions of dollars is no way to handle falling oil prices.

"That’s how countries get themselves into serious, long−term trouble."

With Harper’s Tories in power, Canada lost 400,000 well−paying manufacturing jobs, Mulcair said, adding that there are now 200,000 more people unemployed than before the financial crisis hit in 2008.

"We have seen since the great global financial crisis, Canada has the strongest economic growth, the strongest job−creation record and strongest income growth for the middle class among any of the major developed economies," said Harper, who later said the country had created 1.3 million net new jobs since the recession.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May said Harper was cherry−picking his economic numbers.

"Compared to other economies in the G7, we are doing very poorly indeed," she said. "We’re in a recession under your watch for the second time."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused Harper of giving tax breaks and benefits to the wealthiest Canadians.

"We just found out that wages falling as well," Trudeau said. "He may not feel that from 24 Sussex, but I know you feel that at home."

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In Photos: Canada Election 2015