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Shown in a photo illustration, Tory Leader Stephen Harper, Liberal chief Michael Ignatieff and the NDP's Jack Layton will square off in televised debates Tuesday and Wednesday. (The Globe and Mail)
Shown in a photo illustration, Tory Leader Stephen Harper, Liberal chief Michael Ignatieff and the NDP's Jack Layton will square off in televised debates Tuesday and Wednesday. (The Globe and Mail)

With the debates, the campaign begins in earnest Add to ...

You may know that the polls show the Conservatives about 10 points ahead of the Liberals in this federal election campaign. But you might not know this: On questions of leadership, Stephen Harper outpolls Michael Ignatieff better than two-to-one.

That number is what all the leaders will have in their heads as they take to the stage to debate each other in English on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, in French. Because it is leaders, not parties or platforms, who win or lose elections.

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Political analysts follow leadership scores closely for two reasons. First, they are leading indicators - they change one way or another before support for the actual political party changes.

Second, while they know that Canada is on paper a parliamentary system, in reality voters think presidentially. They don't vote for the candidate they want to represent them in the House of Commons; they vote for the leader and party they want to form the government.

Debates are potential watershed moments in election campaigns because voters assess which of the leaders standing behind the lecterns is best suited to govern the country.

Nanos Research has been tracking voter attitudes toward the party leaders for The Globe and Mail and CTV every day since the campaign began.

The compendium of voter responses to questions about which leader they consider more trustworthy, competent and visionary has consistently shown the Conservative Leader around or above a score of 100, with the Liberal Leader and NDP Leader Jack Layton struggling for bragging rights to a distant second, with scores just below 50.

Even Liberal supporters are ambivalent about the party leader. One example: The Nanos scores show that, while 83 per cent of Conservative supporters believe Mr. Harper is the most competent leader, and 51 per cent of NDP supporters believe the same of Mr. Layton, only 39 per cent of Liberal supporters believe Mr. Ignatieff is most competent. Fully 30 per cent of Liberals give Mr. Harper top marks in that category.

The message for Mr. Ignatieff: "Before you start converting swing voters, the Liberal tribe has to be united behind the leader," said pollster Nik Nanos. But the tribe, at this point, remains uncertain.

Thus far Mr. Ignatieff is doing no better than his predecessor, Stéphane Dion, who posted similar leadership scores during the 2008 campaign, even though the Liberal campaign this time is better funded and better managed, with Mr. Ignatieff performing impressively in public appearances.

But Mr. Layton is not on the cusp of becoming opposition leader. Although many Canadians like and respect him, the number of voters willing to support the NDP is simply much smaller than the number who could vote either Liberal or Conservative. Party brand is also a factor.

Does this mean Stephen Harper goes into these debates on the cusp of his much-coveted majority government? Not at all. He is a leader who consistently fades in the stretch. In 2008, the Nanos daily tracking poll showed Mr. Harper doing equally well prior to the debates, but afterward voter confidence in his leadership steadily declined, leaving him on election day with a score of 87 and another minority government to lead.

For both Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff, the challenge is to break the pattern of 2008. Mr. Harper must affirm, and if possible grow, voter confidence in his leadership by scoring impressively in the debates, stanching the bleeding of support before it occurs. Only then can he hope for a majority government.

Mr. Ignatieff must perform so well that he excites his own supporters - so that they will get off their hands and vote this year, unlike the hundreds of thousands of Liberals leaners who stayed home in 2008 - and intrigues those who have previously written him off, thanks in part to the relentless attack ads the Conservatives ran before the campaign began, which seriously damaged the Ignatieff brand.

Then he must build on that momentum in the remaining days before the vote May 2.

In that sense, with these debates, the fourth general election in seven years will really have begun.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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