OTTAWA - Whatever impressions Canadians might have had about Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau were thoroughly confounded Thursday in the first televised leaders' debate of the 2015 election campaign.
Harper, the hyper-partisan of the House of Commons, was nowhere to be seen and neither was "Angry Tom" Mulcair, the chief inquisitor of question period.
Both leaders were mostly relaxed, poised and prime ministerial in their deliveries during the debate, hosted by Maclean's magazine and moderated by political editor Paul Wells.
That was especially important for Harper, who faced a withering assault from the three other leaders on the key Conservative's claim of solid economic stewardship.
Under questioning from Mulcair, Harper appeared to let slip a rare concession: that the country is indeed in the throes of a mild recession. But he deflected the blame, citing low oil prices as the cause.
The malaise runs deeper, Trudeau and Mulcair agreed, blaming Harper's policies — particularly income splitting for families with children under 18. The prime minister was frequently on the defensive, "clarifying" economic statistics flung at him by his opponents.
The experts seem to agree: no clear winner, no knockout punches.
But in terms of performance, it was perhaps Trudeau — admittedly he had the lowest bar to clear — who surprised the most, coming across as scrappy, eloquent and well-briefed.
In his closing remarks, he confronted Conservative attacks that frame him as "not ready" for the job of being PM, and even managed to draw blood from Mulcair over the NDP leader's pledge of special status for Quebec.
"What I learned from my father is that to lead this country, you need to love this country," Trudeau said.
"In order to know if someone is ready for this job, ask them what they want to do with this job, why they want it in the first place."
His performance could end up surprising voters who might have been ready to switch to the NDP, said David Taras of Calgary's Mount Royal University.
"People thought he would get blown away, and he was toe-to-toe with the others," Taras said.
Aside from trying to redefine his image, Trudeau also tried to stick the pin back in some of the policy grenades threatening his electoral chances, such as Liberal support of the controversial anti-terror bill, C-51 — support he now says may have been "naive."
Green party Leader Elizabeth May sounded solid on the environment and national security, but cemented her outsider image during her closing statement by urging voters to take a closer look.
"We're not what you think," she said. "We're not a one-issue party."
Taras' assessment? "You know it's over when they start talking like that."
Blunting Mulcair's recent surge in the polls was a primary objective for the Liberals, so Trudeau hammered away at the NDP leader's support for the so-called Sherbrooke Declaration of 2005, which endorses the principle of recognizing a referendum victory by the sovereigntist Yes side even by a majority of just 50 per cent plus one.
"In doing so, he is actually disagreeing with the Supreme Court judgment that says one vote is not enough to break up the country," said Trudeau, who was taunted by Mulcair to provide a percentage he would find acceptable.
"You want a number, Mr. Mulcair? I'll give you a number. My number is nine," Trudeau retorted.
"Nine Supreme Court justices said one vote is not enough to break up this country. Yet that is Mr. Mulcair's position. He wants to be prime minister of this country and he's choosing to side with the separatist movement in Quebec and not with the Supreme Court of Canada."
Harper piled on and accused Mulcair of placating separatists.
Taras called it an extraordinary moment that seemed to catch the NDP leader off guard —even more so than the attacks he faced over his stand on the Energy East pipeline and the party's plan for a $15 per hour federal minimum wage.
Mulcair tried to pick apart the Conservative economic record, reminding Harper that in the 2008 election, he denied the country had slid into recession when in fact it was on the verge of a profound economic crisis.
"He's added $150 billion to Canada's debt in the last 10 years," Mulcair said. "Honestly, Mr. Harper, we cannot afford another four years of you."
Trudeau and May went after the Conservative leader on the government's gutting of environment regulations — something Harper described as "streamlining."