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Election Ringside, March 31: A gladiatorial showdown

Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: John Duffy Sent: Thursday, March 31, 2011, 10:45 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan Subject: Election Ringside

Two stories running today - debates and polling - let's try to bring them together.

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New tracking from the estimable Nik Nanos shows a tightening race, with Conservative support still very solid, but the Liberals making strides at the expense of the NDP. If this finding is confirmed in other polling, it would make some sense.

Why? Three reasons for this polarization between Conservatives and Liberals. Michael Ignatieff is out-performing the exceedingly low expectations of him that were loaded in via the Tory negative ad barrage. Layton hasn't been very visible outside of the prairies. And, perhaps most important, Mr. Ignatieff's swearing-off any coalition option may be forcing NDP-cum-Liberal supporters to consider voting strategically. These factors would tend to create the dynamic we may be seeing.

What is more puzzling to me is Stephen Harper's tactic on the debates challenge. Why did he yesterday challenge Mr. Ignatieff to a one-on-one debate yesterday? Doesn't seem to make sense. If polarization is good for the Liberals, why drive the dynamic further by even raising the idea of a one-on-one showdown?

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 11:49 a.m. ET To: John Duffy

I think you're right, John, that the Liberal campaign has been doing well. They stumbled on the first day, when Mr. Ignatieff couldn't answer the coalition question; but they repaired that damage quickly, and got the media to believe that he has renounced coalitions. (I think he intends to accomplish the same result via a minority government, but let's save that discussion for another day.) Now he moved on to what the Conservatives did successfully in the first part of the 2005 campaign, making a new policy announcement each morning.

But before we officially announce a trend, let's remember the unique character of the Nanos poll. He doesn't ask the ballot question in the normal way, ("If the election were held today, which party's candidate would you support?") He asks: "Thinking of your top two choices, which one would you prefer?" (Or words to that effect; I'm quoting from memory.) This means that in most parts of the country, he is cuing respondents to think of the Liberals, since Liberals are the leading second choice where they are not the first choice. Hence Nanos results are not directly comparable to those of other pollsters. I'm not saying there is no movement in the polls, just that I want to see some other results before coming to a conclusion about that.

I was also surprised to see Stephen Harper issue the debate challenge. It does defy normal calculations. But I know from experience that he sometimes likes to do the unexpected.

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From: John Duffy Sent: Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 11:58 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Mr. Harper's debate challenge was unexpected, and is being seized on with delight by Mr. Ignatieff. The national media seems as well to be enraptured at the thought of such a gladiatorial showdown. Yesterday, I wondered whether Ms. May could replicate the social media furor that carried her into the 2008 leader's debate. Today, I'm wondering whether Mr. Harper can withstand the pressure he'll be under to face Mr. Ignatieff one-on-one.

There's a potential for this matter to mushroom somewhat. "How it's done" issues such as prorogation, Afghan prisoner handling, election law violations and citations for contempt of Parliament have caused Mr. Harper much more grief in power than any of the "what is dones." Offering a one-on-one debate, then trying to back out of it, may be the same sort of behavioural question as those issues.

And yes, I expect some Liberal social media fun-and-games to seek to fuel the fire.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 3:12 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

I also hope Mr. Harper will find a way to debate Mr. Ignatieff one on one. I think Mr. Harper would do very well in such an encounter. I can't imagine why he would have offered to do it and then changed his mind. Saying he can't do it because the consortium won't sponsor it isn't very persuasive.

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Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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