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Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff waves at a campaign rally in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, April 9, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election on May 2. (Mark Blinch/Reuters/Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff waves at a campaign rally in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, April 9, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election on May 2. (Mark Blinch/Reuters/Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Ignatieff's six-minute debate challenge: Win the faceoff Add to ...

Six minutes is all Michael Ignatieff will have to try to reshape a federal election already at the halfway mark.

That's no small pressure for a Liberal Leader who will face Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe on Tuesday in the campaign's first debate and the only one in English. The four leaders will do it again in French on Wednesday, rather than the originally scheduled Thursday, so that voters don't have to choose between Ignatieff versus Harper or Habs versus Bruins.

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In both debates, each leader will confront another in a series of one-on-one exchanges lasting six minutes, with the remainder then joining in. For Mr. Ignatieff, his bout with Mr. Harper matters most of all.

It's a lot to ask of someone who's participating in his first leaders debate.

"I've never done this before … so I go in there with a sense of a little apprehension," Mr. Ignatieff conceded on the weekend. "I've got a lot to learn."

But he has little time in which to learn it. With the May 2 vote only three weeks away, the stakes for Mr. Ignatieff in these debates are make-or-break high.

Despite running a mostly error-free campaign, the Liberal Leader still hasn't caught on with voters.

The daily Nanos Research Leadership Index Score - a compendium of voter attitudes toward each leader's trustworthiness, vision and competence compiled for The Globe and Mail and CTV - has consistently shown Mr. Harper with a score similar to the 102 he achieved on the weekend, while Mr. Ignatieff sits at 51.

Changes to the leadership index tend to foreshadow changes in support for the parties themselves. If the Liberals are to have any hope of unseating the Conservatives, those numbers must move emphatically and soon.

In the debate, Mr. Ignatieff will try to knock Mr. Harper off his game by forcing a flash of irritation, a strident overreaction - anything that shakes voter confidence in the Conservative Leader while causing voters who have written the Liberal Leader off to reconsider.

In his exchange with Mr. Layton, Mr. Ignatieff's goal will be to portray the NDP as a boutique party that leftist voters must abandon if they are to stop the Conservatives.

Click here or on the photo gallery in the middle of the story to see what each leader needs to accomplish in the debates.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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