Ontario's major party leaders traded shots in a televised election debate that was dominated by jobs and taxes, giving voters a chance to watch all three candidates in action days before they head to the polls.

Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty joined Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak and New Democrat Andrea Horwath for the 90-minute debate in a downtown Toronto studio.

Early on, Hudak described the Liberals' employment policy, which is largely focused on green energy manufacturing, as "a failure" that's driving up electricity rates.

McGuinty fired back that his green-energy policies have created jobs across the province, while the Tories would slash thousands of positions by nixing a contract with Korean multinational Samsung.

Horwath, meanwhile, said the Liberal plan has left students unemployed and saddled with "a mountain of debt."

It was the first time during the campaign that the leaders had the opportunity to address one another in the same room, and for voters to see them outside of photo-opportunities and staged campaign stops.

On taxes, Hudak charged that McGuinty had twice broken promises that he would not raise rates, charging that "nobody believes you anymore."

McGuinty conceded that adopting the HST "wasn't easy," but that it was "essential" to helping the provincial economy grow. He also accused both Horwath and Hudak of planning to raise taxes if they're elected.

Horwath said that Ontario residents feel like McGuinty "ignored them" during his two terms as premier.

"During that recession what you decided to do was hit people with an unfair tax that made things harder," she said.

Recent polls show the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives are neck-and-neck, with both parties in minority government territory. That could make Horwath's New Democrats the election kingmakers.

McGuinty had three previous debates under his belt. It was the first debate for Horwath and Hudak, meaning it was also their first chance to make an impression on many viewers who are just beginning to follow the election campaign.

One issue hovering over the event was how McGuinty would handle questions about a decision to halt construction on a controversial gas-powered power plant in Mississauga.

Horwath said the move was designed to win votes in the election, but McGuinty replied that the site of the power plant was too close to high-rise condominiums.

McGuinty spent much of the debate defending his record. But he put Hudak on the defensive over what he described as the PC leader's attitude towards "foreigners."

Hudak used the term earlier in the campaign in referring to a Liberal program that would give tax breaks to companies that hire professional immigrants. Hudak defended himself by saying it was the Liberals who had originally used the term to describe the program.

With the Oct. 6 vote nearly a week away, a political science professor said he thought Tuesday's televised debate would be crucial.

McMaster professor Henry Jacek said the closer a debate is to the election, the more impact it is likely to have on voters.

"Whoever has momentum in the days coming out of this debate, it's going to be hard for the others to turn it around -- they just don't have the time," Jacek told The Canadian Press.

Hudak and Horwath had already debated one another last week at an event in northern Ontario, which McGuinty declined to attend.

For the debate on Tuesday, Tory insiders said they were working to portray Hudak as an experienced candidate who is premier material.

"We're hoping to do OK in the debate but ... this is McGuinty's fourth debate and truthfully, we're hoping to survive," a PC strategist who did not want to be identified told The Canadian Press.

With files from The Canadian Press