In every election worth analyzing - some aren't - the key political actors are presented with tough problems which they must grapple with on the public stage. If they succeed, they demonstrate fitness for office. If they fail, they demonstrate the opposite.
In the first two weeks of this federal campaign, the three national leaders did their groundwork. And then in the debates, they tested their solutions against each other in an intense clash in front of the whole country - probably the best direct, unmediated chance to speak to the public any of them will have in this campaign.
How did it work out?
Stephen Harper's "approach march" to the debates was foolish. His campaign misunderstood its opportunity to make a mainstream appeal to Canadians - something that is apparently not in the DNA of those who run it. And so Mr. Harper spent the first two weeks ranting angrily about the opposition. On the plus side, Mr. Harper has done some good for Canada by dispelling the nonsense he has been peddling about our system of government. He now agrees with the first principle of the Westminster model - a Ministry must have the support of Parliament to hold office. But the bad news, for Conservatives, was that there was nothing in the angry, outraged and isolated Tory Leader to appeal to mainstream (notably female) voters. As a tactical proposition, the first phase of Mr. Harper's campaign fed perfectly into the Liberal "we are entitled to your vote" narrative. It's a neat trick, for the Conservative campaign to be that bad all at once: missing your golden opportunity; undoing your establishing work; and providing much of the fuel one of your opponents is running on.
So in the debate, Mr. Harper faced a challenge of his own making - stepping away from the first two weeks of his own campaign, and finally offering Canadians a look at a version of himself that a winning plurality might support. This explains his tone during the English debate, I think. Under heavy fire from his opponents, Mr. Harper remained calm and composed, and finally (sort of) made his best case: the economy is doing well but is still vulnerable; much has been accomplished but much is left to do; the government is in steady hands, and now is not the time to change pilots.
Did it work? I think it probably didn't, mostly because he wasn't able to carry it off in French. Mr. Harper went back to sounding angry and peeved throughout all but the last ten minutes of the French debate. There was nothing there to persuade French-speaking voters to change their overwhelmingly negative views of this Prime Minister. And therefore he emerges from the debates facing the same daunting math he did going in - the need to win something like three-quarters of the 200 seats or so that French Canadians don't predominate in or decisively influence.
Brian Mulroney could have explained that math to him. But those two aren't talking these days.
Michael Ignatieff's "approach march" seemed to go a little better. He spent the first two weeks of this campaign setting out policies largely photocopied from Jack Layton's policy book (word-for-word in some cases) while repeating, again and again, that the Liberal Party is entitled to the votes of all Canadians who don't support Mr. Harper, and that voters have no choices in this election and must support Mr. Ignatieff whether or not they think he is up to the job. As Mr. Layton told him during the debate, Mr. Ignatieff's arrogance and sense of entitlement is his party's least attractive feature. It is an odd thing to build a campaign around. But in the first two weeks of this campaign, Mr. Ignatieff had the enormous advantage of a Conservative Leader who was implicitly validating Mr. Ignatieff's I-am-entitled pitch in every speech, three times a day.