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NDP Leader Jack Layton and his deputy, Thomas Mulcair, ride the Montreal metro during the federal election campaign on April 15, 2011. (SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton and his deputy, Thomas Mulcair, ride the Montreal metro during the federal election campaign on April 15, 2011. (SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)

This election could just be surprisingly surprising Add to ...

There was some important substance to this exchange. How can Mr. Ignatieff claim that this election is about respect for Parliament, when Mr. Ignatieff himself does not respect Parliament enough to participate in its work?

There was also some important optics to this exchange. Mr. Ignatieff was clearly unprepared for this attack from Mr. Layton. He was knocked back on his heels, stuttering and sputtering, and so proved less able than his tough, focused, experienced and more effective New Democrat opponent. There is therefore much for Canadians looking for their best alternative to Mr. Harper to learn from this moment of the debates.

Mr. Layton also made the points I do above: Mr. Ignatieff is on a bit of an odd dime portraying himself as Mr. Harper's only opponent, when he was Mr. Harper's best friend in the last Parliament. Mr. Ignatieff kept Mr. Harper in office, and supported all of his key initiatives, including the corporate tax cuts Mr. Ignatieff has built his policy offer around.

Then on to the Conservatives. Unlike Mr. Ignatieff, Mr. Layton does not agree with Mr. Harper's policies and did not instruct his caucus to support them in Parliament. So he could offer a detailed and credible critique of Mr. Harper's policies - his own contempt for Parliament; his failure to address the environment; the fact that he is an opponent of public medicare, as Canada heads into crucial negotiations over health funding; the fact that Mr. Harper's "pay the rich and everyone else will benefit" economic policies are our economy's problem, not the solution.

Most Canadians, in both languages, agree with these points. So then - putting himself forward as a real alternative. You have the substance of his pitch above. What remains are the optics of it. Canadians, French and English, like and trust Mr. Layton. And in particular they like and trust the genial, committed, tough-but-willing-to-work-with-others Mr. Layton who showed up for those debates.

So what are we left with? Mr. Harper's first two weeks and his debate performance basically cancel each other out. And so he seems to find himself right about where he was at the end of the last election. What remains to be seen is if the Conservatives can wage a more efficient ground game than last time, or finally find something to say that appeals to the mainstream in English and French Canada.

Mr. Layton put the Liberal pitch to his supporters back on its heels, at least for the time being. He offered the best criticism by a national party leader of Mr. Harper's policies - not too surprisingly, since he is the only national party leader who actually opposes those policies. And he succeeded nicely at reminding Canadians why they like and trust him, in both official languages.

Mr. Layton also had a smoked meat at Schwartz's in Montreal the day after the debate - a small but (for some of us) potent symbol of what might just prove to be the most important development in this campaign. And that is, maybe just maybe, the beginnings of a change in how Francophone Quebeckers approach federal politics, courtesy of Mr. Layton.

Mr. Ignatieff is going to have to rebuild his "only I am entitled to your vote" message from a blank sheet of paper after these debates. His attempt to turn the election into a debate about semantics doesn't seem to be flourishing so far. He did prove himself to be a more substantial, thoughtful, and well-spoken public figure than the crayon caricatures in Conservative advertising - almost inevitably so. That is the spark he has to work with during the last half of this election campaign.

Great fun, all in all. As Maclean's Andrew Coyne acknowledged in a recent tweet, Canada has an excellent set of leaders to pick from. They are talking about important things. And, I add, the debates and how they have been heard just might make this election surprisingly surprising, and not in a bad way.

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