It was an unremarkable debate, and that's probably just what Stephen McNeil and his team were hoping for.

For 90 minutes Thursday night, the Liberal leader defended his record as premier and talked about his plans for the future, while Tory Leader Jamie Baillie and NDP Leader Gary Burrill took turns attacking McNeil for broken promises, health-care challenges and labour battles during his time in office.

For anyone who's paid even passing attention to this campaign, there was little new to chew on. Each man repeated talking points that are by now familiar and well tested, and attempted to highlight their plan for the province.

Leaders debate

NDP Leader Gary Burrill (left), PC Leader Jamie Baillie and Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil participated in the CBC News leaders debate on Thursday. (CBC)

At times it seemed as if, in an effort to stay on message, the leaders avoided attacking each other. The few unscripted exchanges among all three men were brief and temperate.

The Liberal government's choice to end the film tax credit was a recurring issue for Baillie and Burrill. When McNeil attempted to defend the change by highlighting the industry's current performance, it elicited minor fireworks.

"We have a film industry in this province today. We have a film fund in this province. We've made that commitment," said McNeil.

"Think of what you'd have had if you hadn't have driven a truck over it," said Burrill.

Baillie jumped in, reminding McNeil of his promise during the last campaign to extend the tax credit.

"Didn't that bother you when you broke that promise?"

Stephen McNeil

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil was on the defensive for much of the debate but avoided any major problems. (CBC)

It was as heated as things would get, and emblematic of much of the night: McNeil defending his record, fending off criticisms and pivoting to his present election platform.

It might have seemed odd for McNeil to not return the critiques, but one Liberal official explained later: "If they aren't talking about their own plans we aren't going to do it for them."

There was one point in the debate that drove home that idea.

Jamie Baillie

Tory Leader Jamie Baillie says his leadership style of wanting to work with people is a departure from the combative tenure of the man he's hoping to replace as premier. (CBC)

Burrill elicited one of the few laughs of the night when he followed an answer from McNeil by saying, "I hate to interrupt this litany of wonders."

Although he earned a laugh, it came after McNeil had spoken uninterrupted for nearly two minutes, touting what he called his accomplishments on economic development and future plans if re-elected.

Burrill, who performed well in his first leaders debate, later told reporters he hoped people saw the "force and depth" of the NDP view that now is the time to eschew balanced budgets and invest in social programs, education and health care.

Gary Burrill

NDP Leader Gary Burrill says there's a clear distinction between himself and the other two parties when it comes to economic philosophy. (CBC)

While some have criticized the party's plan to run deficits of $250 million a year, Burrill said people are kidding themselves if they don't think the province is already paying those costs.

"Every time a child grows up with an inadequate income, every time we provide an inadequate education to a child, we pay as a people in Nova Scotia for years to come in remedial education and in criminal justice spending and certainly we pay in negative health outcomes for decades and decades and decades."

Baillie said his goal was to show that his party has a long-term plan for the province, one that includes a 10-year goal of lowering tuition rates to the national average.

The Tory leader said he believes the election will be determined by leadership style. He said there's a clear distinction between himself and McNeil.

"For me, leadership is about working with people, it's about listening to the health-care workers and teachers that we entrust to work for the government. For Mr. McNeil it's about working against them."

McNeil said he was happy with the night and his ability to talk about his plan. On the criticisms of broken promises, he said there are challenges in governing and things can change.

"Nova Scotians expect their premier, whoever has the opportunity to hold that office, to look at all the circumstances and make decisions that they believe are in the best interest of all Nova Scotians, defend those decisions and talk about what the future looks like under their leadership and that's what I did tonight."

The big election choice

What was on display Thursday night, as it has been for the entire campaign, is that ultimately this election is about one choice and then possibly a second: Either people agree with the Tories and the Liberals that new spending and programs are good, as long as they remain within certain fiscal boundaries, or they agree with the NDP that now is the time to spend in order to aggressively tackle major social problems.

For those who believe the latter, Burrill and his team would seem the likely choice. If it's the former, then indeed it could come down to a question of leadership and whether voters prefer McNeil or Baillie.

Voters have 11 more days to make up their minds.