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Much sound and fury between leaders with no shot at governing

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe spars with NDP chief Jack Layton during the French-language leader's debate in Ottawa on April 13, 2011.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

On Tuesday, when federal party leaders squared off in English, the exchange between Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe was an invitation for a bathroom break.

On Wednesday, when the leaders went at it in French, Mr. Layton and Mr. Duceppe were practically the main event.

It's an effect of gearing one of the two debates almost exclusively toward Quebec - a format that could usefully be revisited in future campaigns - that Mr. Duceppe, the leader of a party with no chance (and no aim) of ever forming government, gets to spend an evening as the de facto incumbent. And it's a worrying reflection on the state of federal politics in that province that it was the other leader with no realistic chance of winning power who looked like Mr. Duceppe's biggest concern.

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Give Mr. Layton his due. The NDP Leader is not only a sharp debater; when he's on his game, he comes off like a passionate defender of social values. On Tuesday, he came off too insubstantial - hurting his credibility with an offensive line about "crooks" in the Senate, and an embarrassing stab at youth jargon. On Wednesday, he kept the glibness to a relative minimum and seemed more sincere for it.

But know, too, that Mr. Layton has a big advantage when he's speaking to Quebec: He can straddle the line between federalism and nationalism, without having to worry about keeping the country together if and when he's in power. As a result, Mr. Duceppe's attempts to draw him offside on articles of faith - including, repeatedly, on language rights - don't really get anywhere. So Mr. Layton seemed to make the most headway toward courting the soft nationalist vote he needs for an eventual Quebec breakthrough.

Michael Ignatieff, too, was better on this night than he was on the previous one. The Liberal Leader was less obviously driven by talking points, quicker to respond to his opponents' jibes, and more eager to speak about his platform. He may well have come off the winner to viewers (probably few and far between) in the rest of the country. But he struggled to strike the right balance on matters of Quebec's role within Canada, winding up simultaneously distancing himself from Pierre Trudeau and saying Quebec should be happy with its current place in the federation - a recipe to make nobody happy.

As for Stephen Harper, the Conservative Leader was the most unchanged performer from night to night. Although slightly testier on Wednesday, his main objective seemed to be to escape unscathed, which he mostly did. Evidently under no illusion that his path to victory is through Quebec, Mr. Harper appeared intent on avoiding anything that could cause him trouble in the rest of the country.

If anything, Mr. Harper seemed to be playing to a purely federalist audience - warning, in a particularly strong moment, that handing power to the other parties would mean a return to the constitutional squabbling of yore. It was a line that probably wounded Mr. Ignatieff the most. And so, on this night, it really didn't matter too much at all.

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Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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