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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (The Globe and Mail)

John Ibbitson

What to expect from the French-language election debate Add to ...

Wednesday night's French-language debate presents Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff with different, though equally taxing, challenges.

While no party leader scored any clear win in Tuesday's English-language debate, the consensus of the commentariat is that the Conservative Leader won by not losing - remaining calm, focusing on his economic record, and avoiding counterattacks that could bring out his well-known meaner side.

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But Mr. Harper isn't out to just win this election; he's out to win a majority government. Now, in a debate that addresses a smaller, mostly French-speaking audience, he must convince Quebeckers - and those from outside the province who choose to listen in - that voting for the sovereigntists or for the other federalist parties will only repeat the gridlock that has plagued Parliament through seven years and four elections.

The problem is that Quebeckers appear to have no problem with minority Parliaments, or even with coalition governments. And Mr. Harper, though bilingual, does not speak idiomatic French. So he may well decide to play it safe - continuing his Cassandra-like warnings of the dangers to the economy of an opposition-party coalition and avoiding any direct confrontations that risk backfiring.

The water-cooler wisdom that ultimately produces winners and losers in debates is based on word-of-mouth about who did well or badly both nights, even if most people saw only one, or even neither, of those contests. Mr. Harper may decide that the biggest goal of the French-language debate is not to undo any positive impressions gained the night before.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ignatieff pounded home his message that the Conservatives were imperilling Canadian democracy through an autocratic and secretive style of governing. What he failed to do was address Canadians directly on why they should entrust him with the office of prime minister. That's not good enough, since the Liberals have some serious catching-up to do in the polls.

In the French-language debate, Mr. Ignatieff will need to balance the potentially conflicting challenges of tarnishing Mr. Harper's lustre while burnishing his own.

Expect Mr. Ignatieff to continue attacking Mr. Harper's allegedly undemocratic record, while this time placing greater emphasis on the Liberal plans to boost child care, home care and aid to students. Expect him to look at the camera more, this time, as well. Tuesday, he spent most of this time talking to his opponents, and not much time talking to us.

Some polls show the Bloc Québécois Leader's support softening, but the Nanos Research daily tracking numbers have Gilles Duceppe at around the same level of support he enjoyed in the last election, and headed once again for about 50 of Quebec's 75 seats.

He will focus primarily on Mr. Harper, since it is the Tory seats around Quebec that the Bloc most covets. But he may also go after Jack Layton, who appears to be gaining support in the province. For the rest, expect a pox-on-all-federalist-houses approach that simultaneously promises the Bloc would act responsibly if the electorate returns yet another minority Parliament.

Mr. Layton will insist that the NDP is the only party that offers a socially compassionate agenda that is not also tied up with sovereignty. Mr. Layton appeared to have a great time, Tuesday. He'll be no less feisty and confident Wednesday night. But he has only one seat in Quebec, and only one or two more that he can realistically hope to pick up.

After these debates, the leaders will embark on a whirlwind tour, seeking to solidify any potential gains, as the election enters a crucial stretch before Easter weekend. By then we may well have a stronger sense of how this campaign will play out.

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