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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, left, and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in the 2011 French-language leaders' debate. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, left, and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in the 2011 French-language leaders' debate. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Debates launch party leaders into a make-or-break week Add to ...

History tells us that elections are often won or lost in the week following the leaders' debates, as voters start to focus their attention on the leaders and the issues. From here on in, the campaigns are locked in. The messages won't change; the leaders will wear the same ties, or go without them at rallies whose nature is already familiar.

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Both main parties are betting that they have developed the formula that will win them votes in the stretch. One of them is wrong.

Mr. Harper emerges from a relatively low-key performance in Wednesday's French language debate, where the sharpest exchanges were between Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton. (Mr. Layton was on the warpath, buoyed by encouraging polling numbers.) The Conservative leader will start Thursday with a visit to Beaupré, northeast of Quebec City, heading after that to an event near the Toronto airport. From then till Good Friday the Conservatives plan to campaign nonstop from one end of the country to another, hoping to shore up support in the Quebec City region, wooing voters in Newfoundland, which shut the Tories out in 2008, and courting, imploring and cajoling voters around Toronto and Vancouver.

Mr. Harper will say over and over again what he said Wednesday night: the Conservatives navigated the economy through the dangerous waters of recession, but the Canadian economy could still founder if the opposition parties win enough seats combined to bring Stephen Harper down.

Mr. Ignatieff will rebut that the Conservatives are squandering money on jets and jails, undermining democracy and ignoring the needs of families.

It was the same message he delivered Wednesday night, in a performance that appeared looser, more confident and more on message than in his debate debut the night before.

He begins in the national capital region, where a few seats are in play, then heads to Saskatchewan, simply because a national leader must appear in each major province no matter how hopeless the cause, then head on to Edmonton, trying to recapture the seat Anne McLellan once held.

If anyone has wind in his sails, it's Jack Layton, who performed ably in both English and French. He'll use the good press he received from the debates to convince Liberal voters, especially, that a strong NDP is the best route to constrain any future government.

While Gilles Duceppe will continue to train his sights on Quebec City Conservatives and Montreal Liberals, knowing that even an indifferent showing will still leave him with by far the most seats in Quebec.

So eight days, in which the party leaders will ask you to make up your mind, or possibly change it. Away we go.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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