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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff boards his campaign bus in Vancouver on March 20, 2011. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff boards his campaign bus in Vancouver on March 20, 2011. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Interview

Ignatieff is running hard, with both eyes on Harper Add to ...

At 64, Michael Ignatieff is the rookie among the leaders in this federal election. Stephen Harper has run three national campaigns as Conservative Leader, as has Jack Layton as the head of the NDP. Even the Green Party's Elizabeth May is running her second campaign.

Mr. Ignatieff said he isn't fazed by this. In an interview on his campaign plane on Wednesday as he travelled from Vancouver to Winnipeg, the Liberal Leader said he feels "like a fighter who has done a lot of roadwork - and we're in the ring."

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He spent the summer on a bus, the so-called Liberal Express, for what amounted to two 36-day, back-to-back campaigns.

Sometimes his officials had him doing seven events a day - the average was about five. So he said this election campaign - where he has his own plane and he's not dealing with airports and security and where he is met at every stop - is easier than that. "It's just bigger that's all," he said.

His target is Mr. Harper. He barely utters Mr. Layton's name; he said he doesn't think he's worth the fight.

"There are only two people who are going to become prime minister at the end of this," Mr. Ignatieff said. "My focus is on replacing the Harper regime. I'm focusing on Mr. Harper because that, in many ways, is the key issue in the campaign. So, um, I've got a lot of respect for Jack. It's just that I've got to keep my eye on the ball."

Staying focused means he doesn't read polls, which have not been kind at all to him.

"I swear to you," he said. "I don't even look at them. I swear to you. ... we've been on the road for five days. I judge it day by day and I've had five good days."

He insists the start of the campaign was solid, even though Mr. Harper managed to steer the agenda for the first two days by hammering away at the issue of whether Mr. Ignatieff would be willing to govern with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois in a coalition.

Mr. Ignatieff said he has now released two major planks of his family-oriented platform without being drowned out by the Tories, feels he has addressed the coalition controversy and has connected with the crowds.

In addition, he's tried to build a case for defeating the government and taking the country into its fourth election in seven years.

No super strategy around this, he said. Rather, it came to a point, he said, where he couldn't support a government being investigated for possible election fraud, which has shut down Parliament twice and which has been found in contempt for the first time in history.

"So you look at that - how can I describe it? This 2.5- or five-year pattern of disrespect for democracy," he said.

And so here he is.

The last time he was on a campaign plane was in 1968, on Pierre Trudeau's team.

"I was at the back of the bus. I was the gopher. I was doing bags. I mean, I was doing anything they asked me to. The first time I ever went to Vancouver was on that plane," he recalled.

"I was the lowest guy on the totem pole, right? But he was the kind of prime minister who, I remember it very vividly, I was way back, right down there by the toilets, and he sauntered back and he sat down beside me and we talked for 15 minutes."

He asked about the book he was reading, The Heart of Cities by Victor Gruen. Mr. Ignatieff said he was intimidated.

"He was whip smart and I thought, 'Oh my God." I was 21 ... and so here we are."

John Duffy, a long-time Liberal, acknowledges that whether Mr. Ignatieff would perform well under pressure was a "big question going in."

And for the most part, the party is holding together, something a little different for Liberals, who have often been at each other's throats. "There's a very strong sense of unity in the party," says Toronto Centre Liberal MP Bob Rae, a former leadership rival. "Michael's made a real effort to bring people together."

Mr. Ignatieff says he is ready. But there are some who believe the party is not.

"I think Michael is more comfortable in his own skin now, not because of anything more than he has more experience being the leader," said a long-time Liberal associate. "Frankly, I think he has outperformed his campaign thus far. So he is ready, but I'm not convinced the party is ready."



With a report from John ibbitson

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