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What would be the best way to configure Emacs to handle the above keybindings for vanilla Emacs? Specifically, I'd like to have SPC work as C-x and SPC SPC work as M-x. I love Spacemacs for the bindings, but want to build up a vanilla install with a better understanding of the underpinnings.

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You could do this:

(global-set-key (kbd "SPC") ctl-x-map)
(define-key ctl-x-map (kbd "SPC") 'execute-extended-command)

Although occasionally modes will define a SPC binding which would take precedence, so rather than using the global map you're perhaps wanting a solution like: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/683425/globally-override-key-binding-in-emacs

I don't really understand how you're planning to type spaces without a great deal of muscle-memory issues, unless you make the new behaviour modal -- but you've not described any requirement for that.

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