OTTAWA — Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau breezed through a partisan storm and into the calm eye of an election-spin hurricane Thursday night on the Calgary Stampede grounds.
A couple of hundred chanting supporters penned outside the BMO Centre in Stampede Park bellowed their support and derision as the leaders arrived for the second of five scheduled debates before the Oct. 19 vote.
Chants of "Four More Years!" competed with "Harper's Gotta Go!" and "Just Not Ready!" and "Trudeau! Trudeau!" from the crowd framed by a kaleidoscope of blue, red and orange signs that lined a fence separating partisans from arriving leaders.
It wasn't the windiest part of the pre-debate show.
Both the Conservatives and New Democrats launched pre-emptive strikes against the Liberals in the hours before the leaders faced off over economic issues — considered the crucial, vote-moving issue of the election.
Their target, Trudeau, attempted to send his own message, staging a solo, sunrise canoe ride in Calgary, evoking memories of his father, Pierre, that Liberals quickly turned into a saccharine online ad.
The relentless air wars over more than six weeks of campaigning have left the three major parties in a statistical dead heat in the aggregate of public opinion surveys, dramatically upping the ante on each face-to-face debate among the leaders.
"I think it's important that young people get out and support our government and push for another four years of a strong Conservative majority," Tyler Van Vliet, wearing a blue Conservative Stephen Harper T-shirt, said outside Stampede Park.
His friend, Miguel Albarracin, also wanted to show his support and believes the debate is an important way of wooing voters.
"It's the one chance we get to see the leaders speak to each other," Albarracin said. "There's no other platform for us to see that. People at home are going to be watching and they'll be able to make a decision on what they want to see for their future."
A Liberal supporter, who would only give his name as Kevin, said he thinks the debate is an important part of the democratic process.
"It's not as scripted as some of the other events during the campaign," he said. "It depends on how the leaders show up and how they answer the questions."
The debate was to be televised on CPAC, but not carried by the major networks. A debate last month, early in the 78-day campaign, attracted about 3.8 million viewers on CPAC, City and OMNI Television and host Rogers said it averaged 1.5 million viewers. That compares to 10.6 million Canadians — and a 3.85 million average per minute — who watched the English language leaders debate in the 2011 campaign.
Thursday's debate was being held in a large ballroom inside the BMO Centre with a live audience of 125 people.
Trudeau has said he would run deficits until 2019 to pay for an ambitious infrastructure program to stimulate growth, while Harper and Mulcair are promising to balance the country's books immediately.
In an harbinger of what was to come, the NDP was out of the gate early Thursday, accusing the Liberals of a faulty fiscal framework, overestimating personal income tax revenues by about $1 billion, then floating a poll the party commissioned to suggest Trudeau is in trouble in his own Quebec riding.
"What's even more troubling is that he's run up the bill without committing a single dime to health care or education," Andrew Thomson, an NDP candidate in Toronto and former Saskatchewan finance minister, said in Ottawa.
"How much more debt will he force on Canadians? How much bigger will the deficits get? Which of the programs Canadians rely on is he going to cut?"
Echoing the Conservative attack line on Trudeau, Thomson said it shows the Liberal leader is inexperienced.
The NDP released their fiscal plan Wednesday promising four surpluses by increasing corporate tax rates, going after subsidies to oil companies and eliminating tax breaks on stock options.
But they too have faced criticism over the ambiguity of their spending commitments, including $2.9 billion to "help where it's needed most," according to their fiscal plan.
Conservative Jason Kenney, the defence minister, also held a news conference Thursday in Toronto to discuss what he characterized as Trudeau's "fiscal irresponsibility."
Kenney asserted Trudeau would leave the country with a $24.7 billion gap in the first year, growing to $34.5 billion when the Liberal promises are fully implemented.
But for the second consecutive day, Kenney was asked why it was he — and not Finance Minister Joe Oliver — who was speaking about finances and the economy on behalf of the Tory party.
Kenney said he is a national spokesman for the Conservatives and that Oliver is working hard to be re-elected in his Toronto constituency of Eglinton-Lawrence, the same riding where Thomson is running for the NDP.
Trudeau, meanwhile, was up with the dawn Thursday morning for a solo paddle on Calgary's Bow River. His aides insisted he was unfazed by all the fuss being made about him.
"Perfect day," Trudeau said during the photo-op, staged to capture him gliding towards the sunrise.
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