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Why won't Harper take Ignatieff on in head-to-head debate?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper pours pints of beer during a campaign stop at a Halifax tavern on March 31, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It would have been quite the show, but Stephen Harper is now ruling out a head-to-head debate with Michael Ignatieff.

The Conservative Leader said he's only willing to debate his Liberal rival one-on-one during the traditional election debates organized by a consortium of TV broadcasters.

Mr. Harper said he's not interested in going mano-a-mano with Mr. Ignatieff in a separate set of debates.

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"Our first preference was a direct debate with the leader of the coalition," the Tory chief told reporters in Halifax during a campaign stop Thursday. "We're not interested in multiple debates."

The consortium of broadcasters that decides the format of the debate rejected the idea of only including Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff. Instead, both the April 12 English debate and the April 14 French debate will also include Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May will not be invited, even though she was allowed to take part in 2008. There will be opportunities during the debate for one-on-one exchanges between leaders.

Mr. Harper alleges that the Liberals failed to back this idea of a one-on-one during consortium talks. The Conservative proposal would have excluded the Bloc, NDP and Greens from the debate.

"If Mr. Ignatieff wanted that [format]debate he could have chosen it. But he didn't," he said. "We're going to spend the rest of our time campaigning across the country."

Mr. Ignatieff says it looks like Mr. Harper is backing away from the idea the Conservative Leader proposed just a day earlier.

"Less than 24 hours ago, he was saying let's go into the ring toe to toe, head to head," Mr. Ignatieff said, claiming Mr. Harper's revised position shows Canadians can't "trust this man."

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Mr. Ignatieff said he wanted a one-on-one debate and a regular leader's debate, too, so no one would be excluded.

"But he said 24 hours ago, let's have a one-on-one debate. There are only two people who are going to be prime minister after the second of May; it's either him or me. So there's a lot of good sense here in having us face off and have a good head-to-head, policy-focused choices for Canada kind of debate. That was 24 hours ago. And now he's turned around," he said.

NDP Leader Jack Layton, meanwhile, was asked by reporters during a campaign stop in Montreal if he is relieved that the consortium had said no to a one-on-one debate between Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff.

"I was hoping maybe I could have a one-on-one debate with Mr. Harper," Mr. Layton replied, "I was kind of looking forward to that possibility but he hasn't accepted the challenge."

Mr. Layton also reiterated that he is disappointed with Ms. May's exclusion.

But "we have been invited and we are going to accept that invitation," he said. "And we have looked at the format that's been proposed and it's a format that we can certainly work with so we will be there to take on Stephen Harper because somebody's got to do it.

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Meanwhile, veteran broadcaster Don Newman is offering his services as moderator should Mr. Harper change his mind. Mr. Newman sent an open letter to both leaders as chair of the advisory board for Canada 2020, offering the organization as a neutral host for the debate.

Canada 2020 describes itself as "a non-partisan, progressive organization dedicated to public policy dialogue."

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