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Television has a reputation for shrinking the people who appear on it. On Tuesday evening, it reduced the four men seeking to lead the country to their well-established stereotypes.

For there was the red-faced Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe in a pinstripe European suit and paisley tie, gripping the lectern as if he might tear it apart, only to pull a hand away to waggle it toward Stephen Harper. There was genially feisty Jack Layton, an old hand at the debates and playing as if he has little to lose, smilingly mocking his Liberal and Conservative antagonists. There was Michael Ignatieff, almost professorial in his articulation of the importance of democracy. And there was Mr. Harper, deflecting or ignoring almost all of the incoming attacks while staying coolly in control.

It was compelling television that offered a mix of classic head-to-head debate-club dynamics and a free-for-all, tightly controlled by moderator Steve Paikin and showing flashes of the party leaders' ability to veer from their talking points.

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And if the evening had been hyped as one key exchange - the six-minute debate between Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff - and five other one-on-one match-ups, the sustained attacks on the Conservative Leader gave the two hours a unifying theme.

Still, little of the barrage seemed to shake Mr. Harper's determination to stay on message as the prudent manager of the country's affairs. He kept a neutral tone - sticking, like the teenaged singer Rebecca Black in her YouTube hit Friday, within a three- or four-note range.

While the stage positions were determined by a draw, Mr. Layton's spot between Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Harper helped him to depict himself as a legitimate choice. Meanwhile, befitting Mr. Duceppe's role at the margins of the English-language conversation, the Bloc Leader had to attack Mr. Harper, who was at stage right, from the stage-left edge.

But in a country famous for its sense of humour, the four leaders were almost uniformly dour, although Mr. Layton made jokes about his bad hip, Mr. Ignatieff's support of Conservative policies, and quipped to Mr. Harper: "I don't know why we need so many more prisons when the crooks seem so happy in the Senate."

Mr. Harper, who has made strides in recent years countering his chilly reputation, was stingy with his smile, although he flashed it repeatedly while speaking directly to the immigrant community. Subtly underlining the opposition charge that Mr. Harper is campaigning in a bubble, Mr. Ignatieff dropped in anecdotes from the campaign trail.

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