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Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff (L-R) take part in the English leaders' debate in Ottawa, April 12, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election on May 2.

CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters

Stephen Harper reaffirmed his credentials as the front-runner in this federal election campaign, using a carefully focused message in the first leaders' debate to deflect repeated criticisms of his government's record.

The question is whether his performance can be a building block over the next two weeks to convince Canadians they should reward him with his first majority government.

The Conservative Leader remained calm in the face of his opponents' most pointed attacks, and continually returned the discussion to his government's accomplishments on the economy. It is the same script he has employed since the start of his campaign: warning Canadians of continued instability and repeated elections if voters once again decide they prefer a minority Parliament.

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It may have preserved the support Mr. Harper now enjoys, which is well above that of any other party leader. But if he continues to avoid risks in Wednesday night's French-language debate, a majority may remain out of sight.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, the rookie in the room, performed effectively throughout the two-hour debate, clearly commanding the battle of the sound bites as he accused Mr. Harper of threatening Canadian democracy with his autocratic style.

"Anything you can't control you shut down," he stated, with minor variations, repeatedly.

But Mr. Ignatieff is not running to be leader of the official opposition. He wants to be prime minister. And there was little that he said in the evening that offered viewers a clear sense of what kind of prime minister he would be.

For a candidate already trailing in the polls, it seemed doubtful that Tuesday's performance took him very far down the path toward closing the gap.

No one may have had a better night than Jack Layton, as the NDP Leader cheerily skewered both of the major party leaders, mixing folksy charm with sharp attacks.

In a clever application of an old trick, he accused Mr. Harper of having changed since he came to Ottawa. The Conservative Leader was once a cheerful warrior determined to "stand up for the little guy," Mr. Layton said. But he maintained Mr. Harper had sold out to the big corporations.

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"You've become what you used to oppose," he said to Mr. Harper. "You've changed in some way."

One tactic seemed emblematic of the debate. Mr. Ignatieff rarely looked at the camera, speaking instead to one party leader or another. Mr. Harper ignored the others and spoke directly to the camera in a preternaturally calm demeanour.

Only Mr. Layton was smoothly able to pivot from camera to opponent and back again, displaying the formidable debating skills he has honed in his years as a politician.

If some soft NDP voters were thinking of abandoning the NDP to support the Liberals, Mr. Layton may have brought them back home.

Much of the first half of the debate - which was far more civil than some previous outings - focused on the chronic instability of Parliament after seven years of minority governments.

"Do you want to have this kind of bickering?" Mr. Harper asked. "Do you want another election in two years?"

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"We're having an election because you couldn't tell the truth to the Parliament of Canada about jets, jails and corporate giveaways," Mr. Ignatieff retorted.

Gilles Duceppe, once again in a debate where he had nothing to gain or lose, gave Mr. Harper grief by reminding him that he had been part of a letter signed by the Bloc Québécois, NDP and Conservative leaders in 2004 proposing an opposition alternative to Paul Martin's Liberal government.

Mr. Harper danced around his defence, but the point was made. It was, however, only a debating point in the end.

There was also some mention of a leaked preliminary version of an Auditor-General's report that heavily criticized the Conservatives for spending tens of millions of dollars in the district of Muskoka that had nothing to do with the G8 summit being held there.

The opposition tied it to the broader criticism of the Harper government's secrecy and lack of respect for Parliament.

But if he was that disrespectful of Parliament, Mr. Harper responded, how had he managed to govern mostly with its consent for five-and-a-half years?

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It was a typical exchange in a debate that probably changed few minds or won many souls. That may be enough for another Conservative win, but perhaps not for the kind of win Mr. Harper covets.

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