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The leaders' debates might make this election surprising

In every election worth analyzing -- some aren't -- the key political actors are presented with tough problems which they must grapple with on the public stage. If they succeed, they demonstrate fitness for office. If they fail, they demonstrate the opposite.

In the first two weeks of this federal campaign, the three national leaders did their groundwork. And then in the debates, they tested their solutions against each other in an intense clash in front of the whole country -- probably the best direct, unmediated chance to speak to the public any of them will have in this campaign.

How did it work out?

Stephen Harper's "approach march" to the debates was foolish. His campaign misunderstood its opportunity to make a mainstream appeal to Canadians -- something that is apparently not in the DNA of those who run it. And so Mr. Harper spent the first two weeks ranting angrily about the opposition. On the plus side, Mr. Harper has done some good for Canada by dispelling the nonsense he has been peddling about our system of government. He now agrees with the first principle of the Westminster model -- a Ministry must have the support of Parliament to hold office. But the bad news, for Conservatives, was that there was nothing in the angry, outraged and isolated Tory Leader to appeal to mainstream (notably female) voters. As a tactical proposition, the first phase of Mr. Harper's campaign fed perfectly into the Liberal "we are entitled to your vote" narrative. It's a neat trick, for the Conservative campaign to be that bad all at once: missing your golden opportunity; undoing your establishing work; and providing much of the fuel one of your opponents is running on.

So in the debate, Mr. Harper faced a challenge of his own making -- stepping away from the first two weeks of his own campaign, and finally offering Canadians a look at a version of himself that a winning plurality might support. This explains his tone during the English debate, I think. Under heavy fire from his opponents, Mr. Harper remained calm and composed, and finally (sort of) made his best case: the economy is doing well but is still vulnerable; much has been accomplished but much is left to do; the government is in steady hands, and now is not the time to change pilots.

Did it work? I think it probably didn't, mostly because he wasn't able to carry it off in French. Mr. Harper went back to sounding angry and peeved throughout all but the last ten minutes of the French debate. There was nothing there to persuade French-speaking voters to change their overwhelmingly negative views of this Prime Minister. And therefore he emerges from the debates facing the same daunting math he did going in -- the need to win something like three-quarters of the 200 seats or so that French Canadians don't predominate in or decisively influence.

Brian Mulroney could have explained that math to him. But those two aren't talking these days.

Michael Ignatieff's "approach march" seemed to go a little better. He spent the first two weeks of this campaign setting out policies largely photocopied from Jack Layton's policy book (word-for-word in some cases) while repeating, again and again, that the Liberal Party is entitled to the votes of all Canadians who don't support Mr. Harper, and that voters have no choices in this election and must support Mr. Ignatieff whether or not they think he is up to the job. As Mr. Layton told him during the debate, Mr. Ignatieff's arrogance and sense of entitlement is his party's least attractive feature. It is an odd thing to build a campaign around. But in the first two weeks of this campaign, Mr. Ignatieff had the enormous advantage of a Conservative Leader who was implicitly validating Mr. Ignatieff's I-am-entitled pitch in every speech, three times a day.

So in the debate, Mr. Ignatieff faced the challenge of closing the sale. That meant completing the job of marginalizing Mr. Layton; presenting a decisive criticism of the Conservative government; and persuading Canadians to take a second look at him as a public figure -- and to find something in him they hadn't seen before.

Did it work? Not, on the numbers, so far.

Certainly, as we're about to discuss, Mr. Ignatieff failed to knock Mr. Layton out of this election. The Liberal campaign is trying to re-run the 1993 federal campaign that brought Jean Chrétien to office, principally by trying to talk the NDP vote down into the single digits. But Mr. Ignatieff's strategists are not dealing with the 1993 New Democrats, crippled by the Bob Rae factor and many other handicaps.

Did Mr. Ignatieff offer a decisive criticism of the conservative government? His campaign thinks he did, by picking a fight with Mr. Harper over process. Specifically, is political debate "bickering," as Mr. Harper contends, or "democracy," as Mr. Ignatieff would have it?

I think most voters think both are true. Canadians are repulsed by Question Period antics. Canadians also value their vote and our parliamentary system. The main point is that Mr. Ignatieff was forced to pick a process argument with Mr. Harper because on all substantive points he agrees with Mr. Harper's policies. Mr. Ignatieff supports the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (he has spent time to the right of Mr. Harper on some of these). He provided Mr. Harper with the votes he needed to implement his corporate tax cuts. He agrees with Mr. Harper's environmental policies, notably as they apply to tar-sands development. And as a philosophical progressive conservative at best, Mr. Ignatieff is no more credible than Mr. Harper as a defender of public health care or public pensions. Small wonder, then, that the best Mr. Ignatieff could do was to pick a professorial argument with Mr. Harper over a point of semantics and political philosophy. It remains to be seen if that will move many votes on coffee row among the good people of Sturgis, Saskatchewan or anywhere else.

Did Mr. Ignatieff get a second look from Canadians? Maybe he did. He did a good job of working his way out of the frame the Conservatives have put him in. His shoelaces were tied. He looked presentable. He spoke well in English and French. So he beat the unreasonably low expectations the Conservatives spent so much money creating.

But then he ran into Jack Layton. After two weeks of campaigning, Mr. Layton went into these debates with a big to-do list. He needed to break -- decisively break -- Mr. Ignatieff's attempt to script him out of the campaign. He then needed to offer a persuasive criticism of the Conservative government. And he needed to remind voters why they like him, and increasingly see him as the real alternative to Mr. Harper.

I think this explains Mr. Layton's conduct in the debates (full disclosure: I attended Mr. Layton's debate preparation sessions to help with the notes while Mr. Layton thought through his approach. The Globe and Mail's "Second Reading" section online is where you hear from some people directly involved in the political process. Don't get mad at the editors -- there are lots of objective journalists writing in all the rest of this website).

So, first, the Liberal campaign needed to be dealt with. To do that, Mr. Layton punched Mr. Ignatieff right in the nose -- pointing out that Mr. Ignatieff has the worst attendance record of any MP in Parliament, having missed some 70 per cent of the votes. Most Canadians don't get promotions when they don't show up for work, Mr. Layton pointed out. Perhaps Mr. Ignatieff should learn his job as an MP before trying out for prime minister. Mr. Ignatieff has since explained he was out doing political tours and so was too busy to show up for work. It needs to be said in reply that Mr. Ignatieff's training-wheel political bus tours occurred when Parliament was not in session, and don't explain why he wasn't in the House to oppose Mr. Harper.

There was some important substance to this exchange. How can Mr. Ignatieff claim that this election is about respect for Parliament, when Mr. Ignatieff himself does not respect Parliament enough to participate in its work?

There was also some important optics to this exchange. Mr. Ignatieff was clearly unprepared for this attack from Mr. Layton. He was knocked back on his heels, stuttering and sputtering, and so proved less able than his tough, focused, experienced and more effective New Democrat opponent. There is therefore much for Canadians looking for their best alternative to Mr. Harper to learn from this moment of the debates.

Mr. Layton also made the points I do above: Mr. Ignatieff is on a bit of an odd dime portraying himself as Mr. Harper's only opponent, when he was Mr. Harper's best friend in the last Parliament. Mr. Ignatieff kept Mr. Harper in office, and supported all of his key initiatives, including the corporate tax cuts Mr. Ignatieff has built his policy offer around.

Then on to the Conservatives. Unlike Mr. Ignatieff, Mr. Layton does not agree with Mr. Harper's policies and did not instruct his caucus to support them in Parliament. So he could offer a detailed and credible critique of Mr. Harper's policies -- his own contempt for Parliament; his failure to address the environment; the fact that he is an opponent of public Medicare, as Canada heads into crucial negotiations over health funding; the fact that Mr. Harper's "pay the rich and everyone else will benefit" economic policies are our economy's problem, not the solution.

Most Canadians, in both languages, agree with these points. So then -- putting himself forward as a real alternative. You have the substance of his pitch above. What remains are the optics of it. Canadians, French and English, like and trust Mr. Layton. And in particular they like and trust the genial, committed, tough-but-willing-to-work-with-others Mr. Layton who showed up for those debates.

So what are we left with? Mr. Harper's first two weeks and his debate performance basically cancel each other out. And so he seems to find himself right about where he was at the end of the last election. What remains to be seen is if the Conservatives can wage a more efficient ground game than last time, or finally find something to say that appeals to the mainstream in English and French Canada.

Mr. Layton put the Liberal pitch to his supporters back on its heels, at least for the time being. He offered the best criticism by a national party leader of Mr. Harper's policies -- not too surprisingly, since he is the only national party leader who actually opposes those policies. And he succeeded nicely at reminding Canadians why they like and trust him, in both official languages.

Mr. Layton also had a smoked meat at Schwartz's in Montreal the day after the debate -- a small but (for some of us) potent symbol of what might just prove to be the most important development in this campaign. And that is, maybe just maybe, the beginnings of a change in how Francophone Quebeckers approach federal politics, courtesy of Mr. Layton.

Mr. Ignatieff is going to have to rebuild his "only I am entitled to your vote" message from a blank sheet of paper after these debates. His attempt to turn the election into a debate about semantics doesn't seem to be flourishing so far. He did prove himself to be a more substantial, thoughtful, and well-spoken public figure than the crayon caricatures in Conservative advertising -- almost inevitably so. That is the spark he has to work with during the last half of this election campaign.

Great fun, all in all. As Maclean's Andrew Coyne acknowledged in a recent tweet, Canada has an excellent set of leaders to pick from. They are talking about important things. And, I add, the debates and how they have been heard just might make this election surprisingly surprising, and not in a bad way.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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