Michael Ignatieff has reignited Stephen Harper's relentless campaign warning that only a Conservative majority government will stop the other parties from joining forces and taking power.
The Liberal Leader's acknowledgment in an interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge that he could seek to form a government in the event that the Conservatives were defeated in Parliament after May 2 was immediately seized on by Mr. Harper as evidence that another minority Conservative government is no longer an option.
The Liberals insist Mr. Ignatieff simply gave a straight answer consistent with what he's been saying since the opening day of the campaign. But the added detail, and the fact that the Liberals are clearly in second place nearing the end of the campaign, has created a new dynamic around the choices facing Canadian voters.
The question now is whether Mr. Ignatieff's words will create the same level of alarm that attended the failed 2008 attempt by the Liberals and NDP to form a coalition government, or whether Canadians will embrace the highly unusual scenario of a party forming government weeks after finishing second in the polls.
The comments also knock the Liberals off their health-care message - that the Conservatives cannot be trusted to protect public health care - and add fuel to the Conservative warning that an unstable "coalition of losers" could threaten economic and political stability.
"Mr. Ignatieff said it again today, that even if he loses the election he'll sit down with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois to try to form a government," Mr. Harper told about 200 enthusiastic Conservative supporters in Val d'Or. "We don't need to go there, friends. We need a stable, majority Conservative government."
What's not clear is what Mr. Ignatieff could have said differently. He told Mr. Mansbridge in the interview, "I'm confident we can win this one on the second of May," and he has ruled out - and ruled out again in the interview - forming a coalition.
Such a coalition would be one in which NDP Leader Jack Layton and members of his caucus could become part of cabinet
And Mr. Ignatieff could hardly have ruled out any possibility of forming a government if asked to by Governor-General David Johnston. The Liberals say they stand by the message and that Mr. Ignatieff's clear answers will appeal to Canadians who are tired of spin.
But although his description of various possible scenarios will receive the nod of constitutional experts, it will likely conflict with what Canadians expect: that the party with the most seats in a minority Parliament governs until it is defeated, and the result of that defeat is an election.
Mr. Harper had said earlier in the day that he believed there was no prospect of a third minority Conservative government because the opposition would quickly defeat it.
One question that will now emerge is whether Mr. Harper would be prepared to amend his Throne Speech and budget, in the event he failed to achieve a majority, to placate the opposition and stay in power.
When pressed in the interview about the possibility of a Conservative minority that is then defeated in the House, Mr. Ignatieff said the issue would then go to the Governor-General.
"And then, if the Governor-General wants to call on other parties - or myself, for example - to try and form a government, then we try and form a government."
"What I'm prepared to do is talk to Layton, or [Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles] Duceppe, or even Mr. Harper and say: 'Look, we've got an issue here. How do we solve it? Here's the plan I want to put before Parliament. This is the budget I would bring in.' Then we take it from there," he said.
On Monday, Mr. Layton offered specific scenarios in a CBC interview in which a second-place party could govern, including agreement on a Throne Speech, a budget or on individual pieces of legislation.
He rejected the idea that a parliamentary defeat of a government requires another election. "Some other party gets a shot at it," he said. "We shouldn't immediately go back to an election; that would be ridiculous."
Canadians are still split on whether they are comfortable with the idea of Mr. Harper winning a majority government, a new poll has found. A Nanos Research poll found that 43 per cent of respondents said they are comfortable or "somewhat comfortable" with Mr. Harper leading a majority government, five percentage points lower than in February.
For the Conservative Leader, the solace is that of those who are at ease with a Tory majority, the level of comfort has grown: The proportion who identified themselves as outright comfortable with a Harper majority - with no qualification - rose five percentage points to 31 per cent.
Overall, 46 per cent said they are uncomfortable or "somewhat uncomfortable" with Mr. Harper's Conservatives forming a majority government, and 11 per cent are unsure.
With a report from Campbell Clark
Editor's note: A tweet sent by @globepolitics containing a link to an earlier version of this story contained incorrect text. The text should have read "Ignatieff clears the air: Grits could govern if Tories win minority."
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