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OTTAWA — NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was out to shore up his credentials as a social democrat Friday in a French-language debate that’s likely the last time voters will see political leaders square off before the Oct. 19 election.

The debate, perhaps the most important of the campaign for the New Democrats, comes amid recent polls that suggest the party’s support in its home base of Quebec has been steadily eroding.

Still the presumed front-runner in the province, Mulcair set about reassuring the large francophone audience in hopes of plugging what are believed to be growing leaks in the made-in-Quebec hull of the NDP ship.

Mulcair used the early portion of the debate to instigate a chippy exchange with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, accusing the prime minister of giving tax-relief “gifts” to large companies and committing to raising the age of retirement age to 67 from 65.

“You gave $50 billion worth of gifts to these big companies, and the result? 300,000 more people out of work than when the crisis hit in 2008,” Mulcair said.

Harper responded by accusing Mulcair’s party of planning to raise taxes.

“It’s the same song again for the NDP: They will increase taxes to balance the budget and it will destroy jobs in Ontario and in British Columbia. We’ll lose a quarter of a million jobs.”

The tension of the first half of the debate was punctuated by some strange moments.

Duceppe twice mistakenly referred to Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of Canada, as the actor Art Carney — Ed Norton on “The Honeymooners” — before he was gently corrected by Trudeau.

Trudeau went on to make a red-faced stumble of his own, calling the separatist leader “mon amour” before correcting the phrase to “mon ami.”

Outside of that, the debate was devoid of levity. Early on, Mulcair battled at length with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for voting in support of Conservative budgets.

“Mr. Trudeau, in my family, we’ve always said that actions speak louder than words,” Mulcair said. “I’m going to tell you that you’re talking about Harper budgets you supported by voting in favour of numerous Harper budgets.”

Despite the “failure” of Harper’s economic policy, the NDP would balance the Conservative budget, said Trudeau — “which means you can’t invest in families, you can’t lower taxes for those who need it, you don’t have the capacity to give, immediately, help to municipalities and regions that need it.”

Mulcair, the leader with the most to lose in the debate, was under pressure Friday to shield the NDP, which won 59 of Quebec’s 75 seats four years ago, from bleeding support to the Tories in the Quebec City area, the Liberals in Montreal and the Bloc Quebecois in some of the province’s rural regions.

He aimed to sell viewers on the social democratic positions of the NDP as a way to reverse the party’s fortunes in Quebec, where they appear to lost ground to the contentious dispute over whether citizenship applicants should be banned from wearing the niqab while taking the oath.

Quebec has seen explosive debates in recent years over the accommodation of religious minorities.

Mulcair has said while he understands its an emotional issue for many people, he supports the existing rule that states anyone seeking citizenship must uncover their face to identify themselves before swearing the oath.

The NDP position differs from the stances held by Harper and Duceppe, who have both called for niqab-wearing women to show their faces during the actual ceremonies.

Like Mulcair, Trudeau says women should be able to choose how they dress. But unlike the NDP, the Liberals aren’t counting on much support from the voters who have expressed the most concern over the so-called niqab debate: Quebec nationalists.

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

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