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Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper, left, speaks as NDP Leader Jack Layton, centre, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, right, gesture during the English leaders' debate in Ottawa.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Neither Stephen Harper nor Michael Ignatieff presented a compelling reason why his party deserves a majority government, in the leaders' debate on Tuesday. Mr. Harper was relaxed but lacked passion and appeared almost disengaged, speaking in a soft monotone as if into a mirror. Mr. Ignatieff was good on the attack, most notably on Mr. Harper's anti-democratic tendencies, and may have succeeded in raising apprehensions about a Harper majority. But he missed a chance to rally Canadians around a Liberal alternative.

Mr. Harper's dull, managerial competence and insistence on playing it safe may well have helped preserve his incumbent's advantage without giving him room to grow. "We have a recovery to complete. We have a job to do," Mr. Harper concluded, in asking for a majority. Steady as she goes is as far as he was willing to go. As a strategy it is too safe by half. It is not as if Mr. Harper were catapulting inexorably toward majority territory. He still needs to inspire disaffected voters or the undecided.

Mr. Harper also made himself vulnerable when he asked viewers, "Do you want to have this kind of bickering?" In an election debate he seemed to suggest opposition parties should be reduced to a hallelujah chorus. Mr. Ignatieff seized on this point, memorably: "There he goes again with this word 'bickering.' This is a debate, Mr. Harper. This is a democracy." And, "You keep talking about Parliament as if it's this little debating society that's a pesky interference in your rule of the country. It's not."

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Mr. Ignatieff otherwise did not breach Mr. Harper's armour. He proved himself to be a very strong debater, a fierce opponent of Mr. Harper and his policies. He offered driblets of autobiography - but failed to offer a coherent and cogent Liberal vision of Canada, wrapped in a compelling personal narrative, that would present the Liberals as a likely successor government.

Both major party leaders exhausted Canadians with policy details and presented strong contrasts with each other. But they failed to grapple with the tough choices their own commitments create. They offered thin gruel on public finances and deficit reduction.

With health care, the parties dutifully praised public health care, adhering to the six per cent doctrine - the annual increase of health care grants to the provinces, without conditions - without explaining how they will pay to keep public health care alive.

While the debate helped establish the themes that the parties will campaign on, it will not decide the election. The leaders of the two parties with the chance to form a government will have to do a better job of providing a vision and a reason for Canadians to support them; otherwise, it will be minority business as usual.

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