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Ignatieff brave in face of failing support

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff plants a tree with the help of four-year-old Charlie Marshall and candidate Lui Temelkovski, Sunday, May 1, 2011 in Markham, Ont.

Paul Chiasson/ The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson/ The Canadian Press

Michael Ignatieff is defiantly urging Canadians to close their ears to predictions that the Liberal Party is headed toward defeat.

"Turn the TV off, turn the radio off, put the papers aside and decide what kind of Canada you want," he pleaded with voters at a campaign stop in the Liberal-held-but-vulnerable riding of Ajax-Pickering, Sunday.

Ignore the pundits, he implored, and vote "to make sure this is a more equal, a more just, a more compassionate, a more responsible country."

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Such pleas are the staple of campaigns that have not gone well; the Liberal campaign has gone from hopeful to dire. Hobbled by Conservative attack ads that branded Mr. Ignatieff as an expatriate dilettante, the leader shifted from one message track to another over the five weeks of the campaign - it's about rescuing democracy from Conservative abuses; it's about rescuing overburdened middle-class families; it's about rescuing public health care from secret Conservative designs - only to watch voter trust in Mr. Ignatieff's leadership steadily degrade, and the party's fortunes along with it.

By the final weekend, the party was clearly playing defence. While Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton - surfing a miraculous wave of popularity - criss-crossed the country reinforcing their campaigns in different regions, the Liberals hunkered down in greater Toronto, trying to hold on to their last major bastion of support.

While Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton refused to meet reporters on the final Sunday of the campaign, Mr. Ignatieff faced them bravely, only to be peppered with questions about whether he would step down or try to carry on as party leader after Monday.

"I'm committing to stay, I'm committed to fight, and I'm here to win on the Second of May," he declared, though he acknowledged: "The Liberal Party is a democratic institution," which has the right to replace him as leader if its members so choose.

Worst of all, the Liberals now find themselves fighting a two-front war, with support threatening to drain both to the NDP, which could become the official opposition, and to the Conservatives, who are almost certain to win the most votes and most seats.

On Sunday, Mr. Ignatieff derided Mr. Harper for urging Liberal supporters to vote Conservative to beat back the NDP.

"Stephen Harper has just shown chutzpah of an astounding kind," he said. "Mr. Harper hates everything the Liberal Party stands for."

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As for Mr. Layton, who threatens to drive the Liberals into third-party status, Mr. Ignatieff conceded: "He's got a fantastic smile, I'll give him that... But the question every Canadian has to ask is what's behind the smile." And the answer, he said, is "not much, folks."

Liberal organizers, many of whom over the weekend quietly conceded defeat, are frustrated that a smoothly run campaign headed by an articulate and passionate leader failed to connect with voters.

That passion was nowhere more evident than when Mr. Ignatieff told the party faithful about an event early in the day, when he had been taken to a park in the riding of Oak Ridges-Markham to plant a tree as a photo-op.

Weary and even grumpy, he confessed, he was astonished to find hundreds of families at the park with buckets and shovels, all determined to transform a field into a forest.

"We are sometimes unworthy of the Canadian people," he said, his voice catching with emotion. They deserve "a politics and politicians worthy of their faith...which I saw this morning on a country road in Canada."

Then he recovered his composure, and carried on with the final day of a long and difficult campaign.

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Mr. Ignatieff ended his last day of campaigning with a low-key visit to a bakery in Maple, Ont. in the riding of Vaughan that Liberals lost in a by-election late last year.

He walked in, followed by a few supporters with signs, and greeted some of the customers and supporters in the bakery.

He also tried his hand at making pizza - putting on spices and searching around for the artichoke toppings. He did not make a speech.

For the past couple of days he has been making these types of stops at local businesses - he was at a diner in Thornhill, in conservative Peter Kent's riding. The Liberals lost that riding in 2008.

Mr. Ignatieff also went to a grocery store in Rob Oliphant's Don Valley West riding.

But he is keeping up the fight - Monday morning he is to be greeting potential voters at a Toronto subway station, he will then vote and after that he is scheduled to visit a retirement home in his riding. He'll be encouraging the residents to get out to vote.

With a file from Jane Taber

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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