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The leaders of four federal political parties take part in the French-language debate Wednesday night. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The leaders of four federal political parties take part in the French-language debate Wednesday night. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Time running out for parties to sway a less-than-engaged electorate Add to ...

With the campaign debates this week, the leaders of the country's federal parties were finally able to occupy centre stage. But they may not be able to stay there for long.

The parties are scrambling to connect with undecided voters by Easter weekend in the face of an unusual convergence of distractions this month.

Normally, they'd have two more weeks to capture Canadians' interest and imagination, but the prospect of a royal wedding the weekend before the May 2 vote essentially gives the party leaders only about eight days to court voters.

The task is made more difficult by declining trends in voter turnout, which reached a nadir in the 2008 federal election - and which could continue to suffer amid what has been an uneventful campaign.

Next weekend is when the leaders will have a last chance to make an enduring impression as families and friends gather for the holiday and take in the hockey playoffs.

It's then, says pollster Nik Nanos, that the election will be discussed. Impressions will be exchanged, then cemented. And so the time between now and then will be what Mr. Nanos refers to as a "persuasion sweet spot," in which the parties must pull out all the stops. After that, it will be too late.

For the Liberals, that will involve trotting out former prime minister Paul Martin, who will join Michael Ignatieff's tour in Western Canada this weekend. Meanwhile, they will be driving hard on the pocketbook-friendly policies at the core of their platform. "Family holidays like Easter actually provide an opportunity for us to promote our 'Family Pack' and spark the dinner-table conversations Canadians will be having over that long weekend," says Leslie Church, Mr. Ignatieff's communications director.

The New Democrats, too, say they're going to try to work the unusually busy calendar to their advantage. "If there's hockey games, then you make that a tour event," NDP campaign director Brad Lavigne says. "If there is a religious holiday and you are going to pay respects to that religion, or you are going to observe that or recognize that, then you incorporate it into your campaign."

The Conservatives are more circumspect, with a spokesman saying that it's nothing new for a campaign to conflict with other events, and that Stephen Harper will campaign the same way he always does. Given their lead in the polls, they may well be happy with the rest of the race taking second stage.

Still, the Conservatives will have to be no less adaptable than the other parties in getting their message through. In their case, that will likely involve a deluge of advertisements during National Hockey League playoff games - a welcome opportunity for a party that has branded itself heavily around the sport.

Commercial breaks, in general, are set to become completely flooded with political spots. The more that the campaigns are unable to get voters' attention on their own, the more that they'll have to piggyback on the diversions getting more attention - including, to some extent, the Royal Wedding.

Meanwhile, frenetic ground campaigns will continue through the campaign's final days. Much of the parties' success in battleground ridings will depend on their ability to identify supporters and get them out to polling stations on May 2.

But to the extent that the leaders themselves can move many votes - winning new converts as they travel the country selling their policies, or losing them through embarrassing gaffes - they're fast running out of time.

So, too, are they running out of time to collectively inspire greater interest in this election; to prevent even worse apathy on this election day than on the last one. To date, even with relatively minimal competition for Canadians' attention, they've been unable to inspire them. What are the chances they'll be able to cut through all the noise in the weeks to come?

With reports from Bill Curry, Gloria Galloway and John Ibbitson

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