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How Ignatieff fell into a Tory trap Add to ...

He won't rule out making a play for the Prime Minister's Office, even if he doesn't win the most seats on May 2. But he won't fully embrace that possibility, won't make the case for why it might be in the country's best interests.

And so, a week and a half before election day, Michael Ignatieff is smack in the middle of no man's land.

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It's the last place the Liberal Leader should want to be, because it's exactly where Stephen Harper wants him.

The Conservative Leader's pitch for a majority government revolves around the premise that giving him only another minority would open the door to an unwieldy coalition of Liberals alongside socialists and separatists. In the early stages of this spring's campaign, that argument seemed to be falling flat. But now Mr. Ignatieff has breathed life into it.

In recent days, he has been drawn into discussions about what it would look like if the opposition parties quickly combined to bring down another Conservative minority. It went far enough to allow a pair of Harper-friendly premiers - Saskatchewan's Brad Wall and Alberta's Ed Stelmach - to attack him for it on Wednesday. But Mr. Ignatieff has not himself put any positive spin on what opposition co-operation would look like, leaving the fear-mongering to stand.

If the two men were being graded by civics teachers, Mr. Ignatieff would indeed be winning. His explanation of how another Conservative minority would work - the need for Mr. Harper to gain the confidence of Parliament, the possibility that a failure to do so will lead the Governor-General to turn to Mr. Ignatieff instead - is grounded in parliamentary conventions. Mr. Harper's insistence that only the party with the most seats can govern, and anyone else attempting to do so is usurping the will of the people, is an open defiance of those conventions.

But the leaders are not being judged by civics teachers; they're being judged by an electorate looking for a reasonably concise explanation of what its options are. Mr. Harper is providing that, however misleadingly. Mr. Ignatieff is not.

When the CBC's Peter Mansbridge pressed him for answers on post-election scenarios, during a nationally televised interview on Tuesday, Mr. Ignatieff spent five minutes talking in circles. None of what he said was factually incorrect. But he came off exasperated that he had to keep explaining his openness to work with other parties, and evasive on the matter of what that co-operation might lead to.

On Wednesday, Mr. Ignatieff seemed a little less defensive. In one of those breaks from script that Mr. Harper would never attempt, he spoke of how another Conservative minority would mean "a new world after May 2" - one in which the Prime Minister could no longer say "it's my way or the highway." Later in the day, he insisted that he would not lead a government with cabinet ministers from other parties. But there remains much confusion about what kind of government the country would be left with, if not a Conservative one.

Mr. Harper, naturally, is only too happy to provide the answer. The same day, he painted a nightmare scenario of "higher spending and tax hikes," of "renewed fighting over referendums, constitutions and national unity," of economic decline and job losses.

In the absence of any other picture being painted by Mr. Ignatieff, that's the only version of an opposition-backed Liberal government that Canadians are hearing about. And that's a problem, because Mr. Ignatieff is increasingly leaving the impression that Mr. Harper won't remain long in power unless we give the Conservative Leader a majority.

Mr. Harper has been setting this trap ever since Stéphane Dion's ill-fated attempt to take power 2 1/2 years ago. Now, Mr. Ignatieff has wandered straight into it. He has 11 days to find his way out.



With a report from Bill Curry

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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