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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff kicks off his campaign for the May 2 federal election with a rally on Parliament Hill March 26, 2011.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper kicked off the country's 41st election campaign Saturday morning, framing the vote set for May 2 as a choice about who is best suited to lead Canada while the global economy's recovery is still fragile.

He emerged from Rideau Hall, the official residence of Governor-General David Johnston, at 9:15 a.m. ET to announce the coming vote after Mr. Johnston granted his request to dissolve Parliament and call an election.

The Tory Leader attacked his political rivals for toppling his government and accused them of plotting to form a coalition to replace him which he said would be a danger to the economy and the country.

"Let me be perfectly clear: unless Canadians elect a stable national majority government, Michael Ignatieff will form a coalition with the NDP and Bloc Québécois," he said.

"Imagine a coalition of arch-centralists and Quebec sovereigntists trying to work together. The only thing they'll be able to agree on is to spend more money and to raise taxes to pay for it."

A YouTube video posted to the Conservative party website Saturday calls Mr. Ignatieff an "opportunist," who will lead to a "reckless coalition that will include the Bloc Québécois."

But, minutes before he spoke, Mr. Ignatieff ruled out a coalition with the New Democrats and Bloc Québécois.

In a statement, the Liberal Leader said he will not ask the NDP or the Bloc to serve in his government, if he is asked to form one.

"We will face Parliament with exactly the same team, platform and agenda that we bring to Canadians during this election," he said in a statement issued Saturday morning. "What Canadians see in this campaign is what Canadians will get if we are asked to form a government.

"We categorically rule out a coalition or formal arrangement with the Bloc Québécois."

Mr. Ignatieff said he was offering Canadians "a Liberal government and not a coalition government."

Mr. Harper refused to accept his rival's disavowal, saying that this merely means it's now a "hidden agenda" on the part of the Liberals.

"They did it before. They denied it before and they will do it again."

He's referring to the fact that former Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion pledged to never form a coalition, only to break this promise in a November 2008 alliance deal with the NDP.

"They'll deny it during an election and they'll do it after if they can get away with it and the only way Canadians can be sure it doesn't happen is to ... elect a stable national Conservative government.

Mr. Harper said his party has consistently avoided coalitions and instead worked on bill-by-bill basis with rivals in the Commons.

But, later Saturday, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe accused Mr. Harper of lying when he says there was no Conservative plan in 2004 to build a political coalition to replace the then-Liberal government of Paul Martin.

He said there was a key meeting in a Montreal hotel where the subject of the opposition parties banding together against Mr. Martin was thrashed out.

Mr. Duceppe said Mr. Harper asked him at that time what the Bloc would like to see in the Throne Speech if the Conservative Leader took power as the head of an anti-Martin coalition.

Mr. Harper framed his election campaign this way: "On May 2, we will choose between stable national government and a reckless coalition; between a low-tax plan for growth and a high-tax agenda that will stall our recovery, kill jobs and set families back."

The prime minister's Conservative minority government suffered a historic defeat Friday at the hands of its political rivals when the three opposition parties united to pass a no-confidence motion that declared the Tory government in contempt of Parliament.

This followed NDP Leader Jack Layton's decision Tuesday to join the Liberals and Bloc in opposing the Harper government's 2011 budget because the Tories failed to insert sufficient measures to meet New Democrat demands including aid for poor seniors and doctor shortages.

Speaking Saturday to a crowd of about 150 young supporters at the posh Chateau Laurier Hotel before embarking for Western Canada, Mr. Layton said Mr. Harper has failed in his promise to make life better for Canadians.

Playing to a public he believes is still hurting from the recent economic downturn, Mr. Layton said Canadians are working harder than ever, their debt is at an all-time high and their retirement is less secure.

The NDP Leader also said Mr. Harper has betrayed his promises.

"He promised he'd finally clean up Liberal-style scandals. Instead, just created new scandals of his own," said Mr. Layton. "After five years, Stephen Harper has failed to fix what's wrong in Ottawa. In fact, he's made it worse.

Later Saturday, he took the campaign to Edmonton, where Linda Duncan managed to beat Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer for the Edmonton-Strathcona seat two and a half years ago. Speaking in Edmonton Centre, he told supporters, "Now, in this election, I'm not asking Edmonton to just re-elect Linda Duncan. I'm asking you to come together and kick every Conservative MP out of Edmonton."

The 156-145 Commons vote Friday afternoon toppled Mr. Harper's 2½-year-old government and set the stage for Canada's fourth election in seven years. It will also be Mr. Harper's fourth attempt to win a majority government as leader of the Conservative Party.

Different polls in the last few days have surprisingly divergent results, with work by some opinion-research firms suggesting that public support for the Tories has moved into majority territory. The findings of others, however, imply the Conservatives would win another minority if an election was held right now.

The Tories came close to losing power in late 2008 when the Liberals teamed up with the NDP to form a coalition that would govern with the backing of the Bloc. Mr. Harper saved his skin only by proroguing Parliament - temporarily shutting it down - and rushing in a massive stimulus spending package that helped cool Liberal enthusiasm for the coalition.

Until Saturday, Mr. Ignatieff had dodged questions on whether he'd try to join forces with Mr. Layton to oust Mr. Harper if the Tories won another minority government. The Tories, however, warn such an alliance is still possible and disparage such a union as a risky deal with "socialists and separatists" that would jeopardize Canada's economic recovery. The Bloc says it would never be a member of a coalition but would work on an issue-by-issue basis with whomever was in power.

The Liberals, meanwhile, are trying to paint Mr. Harper's government as a regime that's abused power by behaving in a secretive and controlling manner and strayed off course through a series of alleged ethical lapses. The opposition parties joined forces to pass a Commons motion saying the Conservatives were in contempt of Parliament for stonewalling on the costs of its tough-on-crime agenda and the price tag for 65 stealth fighter jets.

The Liberals are expected to try to raid the left-leaning NDP's support base during the election by playing to populist themes.

At a rally in downtown Ottawa later Saturday, Mr. Ignatieff borrowed a line from singer Bob Dylan to introduce his new election theme.

"Bob Dylan has this wonderful song," said Mr. Ignatieff. "Some of you know it ... it has that wonderful line in it, 'everybody's gotta serve somebody'."

"We've got to know in this election who we serve," he said, before telling the story of a woman who couldn't pursue her dream to be a bulldozer driver because she couldn't afford childcare.

The Liberals are decrying the Harper Tories' decision to proceed with controversial spending including billions of dollars of corporate tax cuts, more than $22-billion in new fighter jets and pricey prison expansions at a time of high deficits.

Meanwhile, at a rally in Quebec City, Mr. Harper urged voters to turn their backs on the Bloc and read off a list of projects that Ottawa has funded in Quebec, in an effort to demonstrate how the Tories have enriched the province.

"I start my speeches in French and I remind people of this because Canada as a great continental nation was first conceived in French right here in Quebec, right here in Quebec City," he said.

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