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john ibbitson

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff delivers a speech to supporters during a rally Saturday, April 23, 2011 in Summerside, P.E.I.Paul Chiasson/ The Canadian Press

The contrast is remarkable. Stephen Harper, the veteran, still relies on a teleprompter to help recite a speech so tightly scripted that reporters at the back of the room mouth the words in unison.

Michael Ignatieff, the rookie, bounds onto the stage, shirtsleeves rolled up, grabs a wireless mike and proceeds to give an unscripted barn-burner that had this writer shaking his head in admiration.

And yet none of it gets past the room.

Despite his inspiring message, his passionate delivery, his casual mastery of the art of the stump speech - a form he knew little about not that long ago - Michael Ignatieff can't make his message heard to save his life. Or maybe he can, but people aren't buying.

Or maybe the campaign rally - designed to encourage the party faithful to greater effort while delivering a political party's core message to voters via broadcast and print - is losing its relevance in an age of attack ads and social media. If so, Mr. Ignatieff may be remembered as a skilled practitioner of a dying art.

Saturday's afternoon rally in Prince Edward Island introduced a new element to the Ignatieff stump speech: frank criticism of the NDP. With only one week of campaigning left, the third national party is showing alarming signs of becoming the second one. Mr. Ignatieff pleaded with voters to reconsider.

"We've got to the exciting part of this election, the part where we have to choose," he told about 300 enthused supporters who gathered in the only Prince Edward Island riding, Egmont, that went Conservative in 2008. "This is no time for amateur hour, here," he pleaded "...The NDP has had a free ride...It's a nice little taxi to get on for a while, but you'd better take a look at how high that meter's running..."

"Don't go there, folks. This is not wise."

Then it's back to laying into the Conservatives - deriding Mr. Harper's claims that anything less than a Conservative majority will lead to a coalition of the other parties - "Don't treat the Canadian people like fools. You gotta persuade them, you can't bully them" - raging against "fat cat" corporate tax cuts, and promoting the Liberal agenda of help for home care, college tuition, pensions - "the middle class Canadian family. That is our priority."

He concludes by explaining the path he walked toward understanding what it means to be prime minister.

"We went to Stanley Bridge wharf, and we went out with a fisherman, and we went out to that breakwater...it's just falling apart, the harbour's silting up. And you begin to see what you have a government for...I want to be the prime minister for that fisherman. I want to get that wharf fixed."

That may be the great strength and weakness of Mr. Ignatieff's message. Its simple eloquence also conveys both self-absorption and a basic lack of political acumen.

He had to get out with a fisherman and look at a breakwater before he understood what prime ministers do?

He remains buoyant. The voters are stirring, he tells the crowd. Even this late, they're ready to move.

"Slowly but surely the country is rising up," he invokes. "Slowly but surely the country knows what it wants to do. It wants to change this government."

He will keep saying it, extraordinarily well, even if into the void.