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Stephen Harper is a known quantity, a veteran campaigner. He will offer few surprises. The same can be said for NDP Leader Jack Layton. The same goes for Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe.

In the coming campaign, all will be old hats on the hustings, save one. This election, skillfully brought on by Mr. Harper, will hinge hugely on the performance of first-time campaigner, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. If he stumbles badly, the Conservatives will win a majority. If he surprises, he may well be able, with the help of the NDP, to form a government after the campaign.

Rookies make mistakes. Under enormous pressure, Mr. Ignatieff is bound to make them. In this sense, it's advantage Harper. But to rookie opposition leaders come campaign opportunities as well. They finally get equal billing with the prime minister. They get a chance, to define themselves.

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Going into this election, Mr. Ignatieff has low expectations. His polling numbers across a wide range of indices have been embarrassingly low. In politics, low expectations can be a considerable advantage.

Another thing need worry the Harper Conservatives. In recent times, Mr. Ignatieff has been operating with increasing confidence and strength. For long periods in opposition he appeared plagued by ambivalence. He now seems resolved, comfortable in his own skin, ready for the fate that awaits him.

The campaign will begin with Mr. Harper enjoying a good-sized lead as he did in the 2008 campaign. But then he was up against the wobbly Stéphane Dion. While Mr.Ignatieff's polling numbers are just as weak, he is considerably more gifted in terms of leadership potential. He is more articulate and trenchant. He is stronger in debate, better organized and surrounded by a better team. There will be no grainy videos arriving late at TV studios as there was under Mr. Dion. Mr. Ignatieff is unlikely to have to restart an interview several times, as did Mr. Dion, occasioning an embarrassing mishap at a critical period in the '08 campaign.

In 2008, Mr. Harper did not start the campaign under a cloud of ethical controversy as he does this one. The prime minister has done well to trigger the election now before evidence of more scandal can accumulate.

His budget is politically effective in that it appeals to the moderate middle of the political spectrum. But it offered little that was bold or innovative. It signalled a stay-the-course campaign. That could work, but with little new to put on the table, he may find himself on the defensive for long stretches over the abuse-of-power allegations.

Mr. Harper goes into the race as the strong favourite. His powerful machine is primed. But the outcome is beyond his control. The wild card is the Liberal leader. If Mr. Ignatieff displays the kind of mettle some think he is capable of, he will reach a velocity that will make the race tight.

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