It was the debate within the debate: Six minutes of combat between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff, the two men with a real shot at becoming prime minister on May 2. The question that kicked it off, from a voter in Newfoundland and Labrador, is one many Canadians are asking themselves: How can the winner of the election make a likely minority Parliament work? Here's the exchange, minute by minute, with a running verdict on how each leader fared.
Harper: Mr. Harper jumps nimbly from the question to his message. "The cycle of election after election is beginning to put this country's interests in serious jeopardy." And the Conservative Leader says he's been willing to incorporate other parties' ideas.
Ignatieff: The Liberal Leader stumbles at the start, wandering into lecture mode. But then he comes up with a zinger: We'll treat Parliament with respect, instead of this "system of continuous constant control." Still, it's a slow start.
Harper: After being prompted by moderator Steve Paikin, Mr. Harper trots out his line that the contempt-of Parliament motion was nothing more than a party-line vote against his government. He again warns of instability if the Conservatives don't get a majority. "We're asking Canadians for a clear majority so we can get on with the nation's business." On message, but no rebuttal of Mr. Ignatieff.
Ignatieff: The Liberal Leader lunges at Mr. Harper. "You haven't earned the trust of the Canadian people, because you don't trust the Canadian people." Mr. Ignatieff riffs on the theme of Mr. Harper being afraid of facing Canadians, and a weak leader, pointing out that the Conservative campaign excluded several people from rallies, including a veteran, and a London, Ont., woman who posted a picture of herself and the Liberal Leader on her Facebook page. "What are you afraid of?" A clear score for Mr. Ignatieff.
Minutes 3 and 4:
Harper: Clearly on the defensive, the Conservative Leader says he's not afraid of the Canadian people. And then he drops the B-bomb - bickering. It's a theme that Mr. Harper will return to constantly over the night, namely that Canadians are tired of the bickering inherent in a minority Parliament. Comes from behind.
Ignatieff: Mr. Ignatieff loses momentum, simply repeating the Facebook and veteran incidents. And then he talks about the indignities that Mr. Harper has visited on Parliament - and misses the opportunity to drive home how Mr. Harper's propensities hurt Canadians, rather than parliamentarians.
Minutes 5 and 6:
Harper: You say we didn't consult; we did. You say we didn't share information; we did. Mr. Harper gets caught up in, uh, bickering, and a little bit of sarcasm. Then, he reverts back to his core message - "What matters to people now is not the bickering that goes on in Parliament. It's our ability to focus on what matters to them. What matters to them is the economy."
Ignatieff: The Liberal Leader commits the prime sin of debates: He loses his temper, just a little bit. "This is how democracy works. I ask questions, I hold you accountable. It isn't bickering." Mr. Ignatieff uses the wrong pronoun: He could have chosen "we" - even better, "you" - over I.
Harper: The Conservative Leader does what he needs to do and avoids any damaging blows or scathing sound bites. Still, he doesn't do much more than that, and misses the chance to lure Mr. Ignatieff into a stumble.
Ignatieff: The Liberal Leader had the harder task - he needed to go on the offensive and force Mr. Harper to lose his cool. He had scant success on that front, throughout the night. And his indignation over the Harper government's lack of respect for Parliament somehow transmuted into a personal slight - playing into the Conservative portrayal of Mr. Ignatieff as an ego-ridden politician.