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An unimpressed child rides out the frenzy as Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff reaches out to a baby in Markham, Ont., on April 8. (Reuters)
An unimpressed child rides out the frenzy as Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff reaches out to a baby in Markham, Ont., on April 8. (Reuters)

A veteran's debate advice for Ignatieff Add to ...

Heading into the TV debates, the leaders and their entourages will be revising their approaches to take into account the context and how it may be changing.

Over the years, I've helped prep both Conservative and Liberal leaders for televised debates, including using sophisticated moment to moment technology to learn more about what works and why. So, I've been thinking about what research at this moment would probably tell Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff to focus on in this potentially critical moment in the campaign.

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( This is in no way intended as partisan advice, just some thoughts on what guidance research would likely produce.)

Tomorrow, some thoughts for the Conservative leader. Today a few for Mr. Ignatieff, about the English language debate:

Above all, stay loose. Continue to look energized by this election, let people see that you are having fun. One of the most powerful non-verbal cues that politicians send is very simple: the difference between looking upbeat and looking tense. Kim Campbell's appeal was high and rising when she radiated optimism; as soon as she looked worried about the economy, jobs, the deficit, the troubles of the world ... her support began to evaporate. A strong challenger's campaign needs to spark unease with the status quo but at the same time deliver reassurance about the future: a relaxed self confidence helps a lot.

Find ways to illustrate how different you are from Mr. Harper as a human being. For example, when you show a willingness to wade happily into the fray of politics, while arguing that Mr. Harper seems to be fleeing or dodging scrutiny in every way possible, this contrast is effective for you. It borrows from and builds on things that have concerned some voters about Mr. Harper for a while.

Highlight crisply and often how different you feel the Liberal and Conservative agendas are. Make your policy case in short powerful bursts. Your pitch as I hear it so far is that tax cuts, law and order, and a strong defence are good things, but not all that Canadians dream about or aspire to: and that health, education, a decent retirement deserve more attention, not less. Harness, don't challenge, growing confidence in the economy. People prefer to believe that the future will be better, more than the next crisis is just days away. Make this optimism your friend: voters will buy that a strong economy can help reduce our deficit, meet health and education goals, and eventually cut our taxes too. Don't hesitate to say that Canadians are the ones who are making the economy grow, not the government.

Finally, imagine you are talking to three individuals. The first is a normally Liberal voter who stayed home last election (there clearly were many of these). Getting these folks motivated to get to the polls may be your easiest task, and almost certainly will be the most rewarding one. The second is a New Democratic Party supporter increasingly uncomfortable with the Conservatives, more open to you and your platform, and more willing than ever to think about voting strategically. The third is a Liberal-Conservative swing voter, someone who has drifted from the Liberal Party in recent years, but is at heart a Blue Liberal or Red Tory. They hadn't expected to really consider you in this election, but they may be reconsidering, based on concern about how partisan, ideological, or closed-off the Harper government can sometimes appear.

In any of these debates, it's smart to try to imagine what your opponents will say, and how you may need to defend yourself. The normal temptation is to overdo defensive preparation: fear of being hurt is the stuff that keeps one up at night.

But my guess is that after months of hammering you through paid advertising, this is a night when Mr. Harper will probably avoid doing too much more of this: meaning its an opportunity to play mostly in your opponent's end.

Having said that, you won't win over many of these voters by being relentlessly harsh, people are tired of voting against something or someone. Take a hard attack line when you need to, but spend more time letting voters know that you can be a positive choice if that's what they are looking for.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on how Stephen Harper could use the debates to strengthen and consolidate his position.

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