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john ibbitson

Conservative leader and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper reacts while working behind the counter at a deli during a campaign stop in Brampton, Ontario March 27, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election May 2.Chris Wattie/Reuters

In this first full week of the 2011 federal election campaign, Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff will have two goals: Establish the message and build momentum. Thus far, Mr. Harper is ahead on both counts.

Mr. Ignatieff, the Liberal Leader, was forced to spend another day, Sunday, insisting that he would never, under any circumstances, form a coalition with NDP Leader Jack Layton in the event no party wins a majority of seats on May 2.

During elections, what leaders talk about matters more than what they actually say. Mr. Ignatieff wants to talk about what he sees as Conservative abuses of power and reckless spending on jets and jails, not about who'll form the next government and how.

In the days ahead, his first goal will be to get voters' minds back to whether Mr. Harper can be trusted not to abuse power if he is returned to it.

Mr. Harper will happily carry on pounding the "reckless coalition" message, both because it unsettles potential Liberal supporters and because it keeps people focused on his message and not Mr. Ignatieff's.

Mr. Layton will target wavering Liberals with the message that only the NDP offers a truly socially compassionate alternative to the Conservatives. But he will be sanguine if coalition talk continues to dominate, because it boosts the image of his party as the kingmaker.

Any polls that come out this week will gauge how well the Tory strategy is working. But thus far, they have the wind in their sails. An Ipsos Reid poll released late last week has the Conservatives at 43 per cent, in majority-government territory, and the Liberals at 24 per cent.

That finding was at least partly buttressed by an Angus Reid poll for the Toronto Star released on the weekend that has the Conservatives at 39 per cent and the Liberals at 25 per cent.

One way the Liberals may be able to turn attention to their agenda is by releasing their campaign platform, which is expected either at the end of this week or early next week.

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