MONTREAL — The first debate of the federal election campaign is more likely to have complicated matters for voters struggling to make a choice between the parties on offer than pointed them in a specific direction.
If your heart was already set on a leader, he or she probably managed to do well enough to convince you to stick with your first choice — at least until later in the campaign.
But if you were primarily looking for a sure bet to oust the Conservatives from power then you are unlikely to be further advanced in that quest.
And if you are a 2011 Conservative supporter who has been flirting with but has not yet committed to the notion of regime change, you may have found cause in Stephen Harper’s demeanour to reconsider throwing out his government.
• The Conservative leader chose to spend the evening on a higher road than the path he has tended to favour since he launched the election a week ago. His body language was less aggressive. He stood his ground but he did not bully his way out of the exchanges with his rivals.
That is not to say that Harper managed to do more than paper over some of the cracks in his policy armour.
There were gaping holes in his economic narrative.
His contention that he has achieved anything close to an effective balance between the environment and the advancement of Canada’s energy agenda is a hard sell, even among pipeline supporters.
His laissez-faire approach to the Senate will not satisfy those who believe that he has had a big hand in the mess he is declining to fix.
But by answering questions with more prime ministerial confidence than partisan arrogance, Harper at least did not make it harder for some lapsed supporters to come back to the fold.
• Thomas Mulcair did not hit the ball out of the debate park on Thursday but nor did he give non-NDP voters reasons to be spooked by the prospect of the first ever New Democrat federal government. He looked the part of a prime-minister-in-waiting.
The NDP leader successfully blunted some of the edges of his party’s policies — most notably on pipelines, defence and NATO.
He may have lost points on his contention that a simple majority vote should decide a future Quebec referendum. At least outside Quebec, that stance has made him vulnerable to Liberal attacks but it remains the unanimous position of the parties in the national assembly, including Premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberals.
Voters will have to decide whether, on balance, a prime minister committed to keeping Quebec in the federation against the will of a majority of its people — as is Justin Trudeau — is de facto a stronger champion for Canada than one like Mulcair, who has otherwise fought in the trenches of two referendums and has so far kept the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois at bay.
• Trudeau was deemed by many to be an empty suit before the debate. Chances are their numbers shrank over the course of the evening. Like his rivals he was not pitch-perfect on policy but he was more effective than in question period exchanges in the House of Commons.
Most Liberal candidates likely came away from the debate convinced that they were going to get to live to fight another day.
• Green Party Leader Elizabeth May is not in the running for prime minister. As a result she stands to be trampled by a potential regime-change stampede to one or the other national opposition party. On the debate podium, she did as much as she realistically could to mitigate that risk.
A word finally on Gilles Duceppe, who was not invited on the Maclean’s set: His Bloc Québécois would have been best served by a debate that did not mention Quebec at all. That would have reinforced Duceppe’s case that under the NDP the province’s interests have fallen off the radar.
An evening that saw Mulcair stand up to Trudeau on an issue as close to the heart of the Bloc as the rules of a future referendum is not what Duceppe needed as he tries to push back the New Democrats in Quebec.