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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is framed by Tory Leader Stephen Harper's glasses as he answers a question during the English-language election debate in Ottawa on April 12, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is framed by Tory Leader Stephen Harper's glasses as he answers a question during the English-language election debate in Ottawa on April 12, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ignatieff unloads with both barrels - but fails to wound Harper Add to ...

It has become a hoary cliché to so much as utter the words "knockout punch" in conjunction with a federal election debate. But it's hard to get around them, when one of the party leaders spends most of his evening throwing haymakers.

Say this much for Michael Ignatieff: He plainly knew what was on the line on Tuesday night. As he has through the campaign, he conveyed a sense of energy and urgency. He was hot.

The Liberal Leader's efforts were not completely wasted. He delivered so many sound bites - his repeated description of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper as "a man who will shut down anything he can't control" the strongest among them - that he will probably dominate the clips in newscasts. And he firmly established himself as Mr. Harper's strongest and most relevant opponent, helped by a performance by NDP Leader Jack Layton that at times verged on amateurish. (Mr. Layton's shot at "crooks" in the Senate was the night's most unbecoming moment.)

But to really change the course of this campaign, Mr. Ignatieff needed either to alter Canadians' impressions of Mr. Harper or to give them a more positive impression of himself. And it's hard to see how he made any significant inroads toward either goal.

If anything, impressions of Mr. Harper - among viewers who watched the full debate, or large chunks of it - probably improved. The infuriating message discipline he shows on the hustings was loosened enough to allow him to make reasonable-sounding arguments. There were few flashes of his legendary mean streak, or of gratuitous fear-mongering. The worst that could be said, and it's a considerable offence, is that Mr. Harper at times preyed on the assumed ignorance of viewers - most notably with an insultingly simplistic explanation of how minority governments are supposed to work. But for the most part, he looked like the most prime ministerial - and, it must be said, the most hopeful.

This is where Mr. Ignatieff fell particularly short. He projected a great deal of anger about Conservative governance, particularly a lack of respect for democracy. But he offered almost no indication of how he himself would govern, or why that would make the country a better place.

Nor - for someone with considerable debating experience and someone who has been doing many of his campaign events without even relying on notes - was Mr. Ignatieff especially quick on his feet. At one point in the debate, Mr. Layton challenged Mr. Ignatieff's attendance record in the House of Commons. An easy response, in keeping with his message, would have been to say that he's been out talking to (and listening to) Canadians - something the current prime minister fails to do. Instead, he awkwardly changed the subject, returning to one of his sound bites. It was one of several missed opportunities to appear charming, or at least to appear human - something he needs to do to shake the image of him the Conservatives have presented to Canadians.

Mr. Harper did not win the debate outright. Viewers spent most of the night hearing about his alleged flaws, rather than those of his opponents, and those messages will be echoed for the next couple of days. But he needed only to escape without fundamental dynamics of the campaign being altered, and he achieved that.

It's conceivable that Mr. Ignatieff tapped into a latent anger against Mr. Harper; that in the days ahead, voters will decide they're as frustrated with the state of Canadian democracy as he is. But if not, all that flailing won't have gotten him much of anywhere.

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