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NDP Leader Jack Layton and his deputy, Thomas Mulcair, ride the Montreal metro during the federal election campaign on April 15, 2011. (SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton and his deputy, Thomas Mulcair, ride the Montreal metro during the federal election campaign on April 15, 2011. (SHAUN BEST/REUTERS)

This election could just be surprisingly surprising Add to ...

So in the debate, Mr. Ignatieff faced the challenge of closing the sale. That meant completing the job of marginalizing Mr. Layton; presenting a decisive criticism of the Conservative government; and persuading Canadians to take a second look at him as a public figure - and to find something in him they hadn't seen before.

Did it work? Not, on the numbers, so far.

Certainly, as we're about to discuss, Mr. Ignatieff failed to knock Mr. Layton out of this election. The Liberal campaign is trying to re-run the 1993 federal campaign that brought Jean Chrétien to office, principally by trying to talk the NDP vote down into the single digits. But Mr. Ignatieff's strategists are not dealing with the 1993 New Democrats, crippled by the Bob Rae factor and many other handicaps.

Did Mr. Ignatieff offer a decisive criticism of the conservative government? His campaign thinks he did, by picking a fight with Mr. Harper over process. Specifically, is political debate "bickering," as Mr. Harper contends, or "democracy," as Mr. Ignatieff would have it?

I think most voters think both are true. Canadians are repulsed by Question Period antics. Canadians also value their vote and our parliamentary system. The main point is that Mr. Ignatieff was forced to pick a process argument with Mr. Harper because on all substantive points he agrees with Mr. Harper's policies. Mr. Ignatieff supports the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (he has spent time to the right of Mr. Harper on some of these). He provided Mr. Harper with the votes he needed to implement his corporate tax cuts. He agrees with Mr. Harper's environmental policies, notably as they apply to tar-sands development. And as a philosophical progressive conservative at best, Mr. Ignatieff is no more credible than Mr. Harper as a defender of public health care or public pensions. Small wonder, then, that the best Mr. Ignatieff could do was to pick a professorial argument with Mr. Harper over a point of semantics and political philosophy. It remains to be seem if that will move many votes on coffee row among the good people of Sturgis, Saskatchewan or anywhere else.

Did Mr. Ignatieff get a second look from Canadians? Maybe he did. He did a good job of working his way out of the frame the Conservatives have put him in. His shoelaces were tied. He looked presentable. He spoke well in English and French. So he beat the unreasonably low expectations the Conservatives spent so much money creating.

But then he ran into Jack Layton. After two weeks of campaigning, Mr. Layton went into these debates with a big to-do list. He needed to break - decisively break - Mr. Ignatieff's attempt to script him out of the campaign. He then needed to offer a persuasive criticism of the Conservative government. And he needed to remind voters why they like him, and increasingly see him as the real alternative to Mr. Harper.

I think this explains Mr. Layton's conduct in the debates (full disclosure: I attended Mr. Layton's debate preparation sessions to help with the notes while Mr. Layton thought through his approach. The Globe and Mail's "Second Reading" section online is where you hear from some people directly involved in the political process. Don't get mad at the editors - there are lots of objective journalists writing in all the rest of this website).

So, first, the Liberal campaign needed to be dealt with. To do that, Mr. Layton punched Mr. Ignatieff right in the nose - pointing out that Mr. Ignatieff has the worst attendance record of any MP in Parliament, having missed some 70 per cent of the votes. Most Canadians don't get promotions when they don't show up for work, Mr. Layton pointed out. Perhaps Mr. Ignatieff should learn his job as an MP before trying out for prime minister. Mr. Ignatieff has since explained he was out doing political tours and so was too busy to show up for work. It needs to be said in reply that Mr. Ignatieff's training-wheel political bus tours occurred when Parliament was not in session, and don't explain why he wasn't in the House to oppose Mr. Harper.

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