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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff walks past a painting as he arrives for a news conference in Vancouver on Sept. 4, 2009.

DARRYL DYCK

Greg Lyle (former chief of staff for Manitoba premier Gary Filmon, and managing director of the Innovative Research Group): The fate of the Liberal Party of Canada is to enjoy the greatest opportunity for growth among all the four major parties at the expense of fighting a three-front war. For Chrétien this equation worked well. For Dion it was disaster. For Ignatieff, only time will tell.

Right now in Quebec, the Bloc's primary opponent is the surging Liberals while they manage a mop-up operation against the Conservatives in the Quebec City region. The NDP also pull primarily from the Liberals. They need to keep an eye on the Greens generally and the Tories in specific rural and Western seats, but their main opportunity for growth comes from stealing Liberal votes.

Finally, the Conservatives also draw their second-choice support overwhelmingly from the Liberals. Bloc switchers are not a major opportunity. In Quebec, right-wing nationalists of the Union National ilk are a dying breed. Most sovereigntists are left-leaning and green. Federalists are more diverse but most economic conservatives are federalist. In the rest of Canada, there are a few NDP Conservative switchers in some rural and B.C. seats, but the bulk of Tory second choices come from the Liberals.

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If the law of the jungle is eat or be eaten, the law of politics is define of be defined. Canadians know what they think of the various parties and they've had the other three main leaders to kick around for several elections. The only unknown variable is Michael Ignatieff.

The first priority for all three of the opposition parties is to define Ignatieff. While he appeared to start strong as a leader, he has been seen to stumble recently. More importantly, he has not clearly established the answer to two critical questions: Why do the Tories need to be defeated now? Why does Michael Ignatieff want to be Prime Minister?

Job No. 1 for his opponents is to define Ignatieff by answering those two questions on his behalf before the Liberals can answer them.

The Bloc shift on the home-renovation tax break vote is a good example of one of the Liberals' opponents moving quickly to take advantage of an opportunity. The Liberals are now negatively positioned on why they want the election now and the issue can be used as a failed test of Ignatieff's character, as a proof point that he puts his personal interest above the common interest.

This is the pattern the Liberal opponents must sustain. Keep the Liberals on the defensive and use every opportunity they have to define Ignatieff negatively.

Since the Liberals are the main threat and the main opportunity for all three of their competitors, the bottom line is that if any of their opponents hurt the Liberals, all three opponents potentially gain.

Scott Reid (former communications director for Paul Martin, and principal with the speechwriting company Feschuk-Reid): Michael Ignatieff thought things through carefully this summer and concluded that he had no stomach for a phony war. So he opted to start a real one.

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In so doing, he has left his political opponents with little room to deal-make their way around a fall election. The Conservatives have previously branded any alliance with the Bloc as tantamount to high treason and they openly dismiss Jack Layton as an extortionist. The Bloc realize Stephen Harper has deemed them radioactive and the NDP understand their many moral crusades against the Liberals make it practically impossible for them to extend Harper's political life - even if an empty bank account makes them fear a campaign.

So what should the Conservatives, Bloc and NDP do - knowing that an election is likely unstoppable? Simple. They should position themselves as well as possible for the writ period that will surely soon arrive. Here are some priorities that should be pursued.

Conservatives: The truth is Stephen Harper is far from convinced that an election is contrary to his interests. But he knows that betraying his secret enthusiasm would be a grave error. Not just because it would put him at odds with the prevailing public view. But because it would rob him of the ability to tee off on his Liberal opponent. Instead, expect him to take three steps to enhance his existing advantages. First, he will make Michael Ignatieff pay an even steeper price for pressing this campaign upon the public. Forget the discomfort of making the Liberals vote against the home-renovation tax credit. Watch for Harper to suddenly offer Ignatieff a deal on EI. He'll publicly propose a set of reforms that, while not quite what the Liberals sought, are indisputably seen as a compromise. Of course, he would make this gesture knowing that Ignatieff has crossed the political point of no return and will be forced to reject any offer. In other words, all gain and no risk for the Conservative Prime Minister. Second, he will run pre-writ ads in Quebec designed to take the shine off Michael Ignatieff. Robbed of the new leader's novelty appeal, the Liberal uptick in Quebec has shown signs of slowing recently. Harper will do his best to intensify that trend. Finally, he will continue to make big dollar infrastructure announcements - identifying his efforts with the noble task of revitalizing economic growth and creating new jobs. Don't be surprised if they just happen to all occur in swing ridings.

New Democrats: Jack Layton should use this period to outline a specific set of policy outcomes he would require in exchange for voting to prolong the Conservatives time in office. Not because he believes this might work. It won't. But, rather, as a way of identifying some of the simple, populist positions the NDP know neither main party can champion. In the teeth of recession, the New Democrats need to better distinguish themselves as standing up for the little guy. A faux list of demands is a nice way to ensure your priorities get well reported. Finally, the NDP need to raise money. That practical consideration must become a primary focus for the next three to four weeks before the government falls. Direct mail and online solicitations should be unleashed with full fury.

Blog Québécois: The Bloc simply needs to resume its place as the party that alone protects the interests of Quebec. Over the past few months Quebeckers have signalled their desire for an alternative option. Flirtation with Michael Ignatieff has been based on little more than impressions and glimpses. But nevertheless, interest has been persistent and, according to some polls, tenacious. Gilles Duceppe must respond to this with attention to hot button issues such as closing down the tar sands, seeking assurances that federal buildings will post signs only in French and giving an equal amount of financial aid to Quebec foresters as to Ontario auto workers. These issues are impossible for the other parties to support and, as a consequence, highlight that only the Bloc can be counted upon for Quebec. Duceppe looks tired. If he does nothing because he finds the old recipe boring, he'll be giving someone else the opportunity to steal his seats. He must return to the old well and draw one more pail of "Quebec First" water.

Liberals: By far the greatest challenge (and greatest opportunity) however, falls to Michael Ignatieff and his party. They must constantly reinforce their logic for forcing a new vote - articulating why that's in the public interest without artificially raising expectations they will deliver radical new policy measures to remedy every ill. In particular, they need to make the case that a moment like this requires a government that believes it must play a role in fostering a truly sustainable recovery. The broad middle class of this country knows that future prosperity relies on Canada charting a shrewd, swift course in a global economy that has been fundamentally changed by the events of the past year. Liberals do not believe people can mount that effort on their own. They believe government must help. Conservatives disagree. And that's why an election is needed now.

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Leslie Campbell (former chief of staff for Audrey McLaughlin, and senior associate at the National Democratic Institute ): While there may be more to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's declaration that Stephen Harper government's "time is up" than impatience to fulfill his self-defined political destiny, it's not clear what that might be.

The leader's ambition and the ever-present Liberal Party sense of entitlement seem to be the proximate cause of Ignatieff's election fever, rather than any rational plan to break the deadlock that has delivered five years of political turmoil and precious little constructive policy. Unless they build a compelling election narrative, the Liberals would seem vulnerable to a critique that their reckless behaviour will lead to another expensive, ultimately futile election at a time when Canada requires stable governance and responsible public policy.

Unfortunately, Ignatieff is not the only Canadian politician fond of braggadocio. For reasons that are difficult to divine, the Prime Minister pre-empted virtually any possible compromise that could be offered by the NDP, preferring, it would seem, to face down Ignatieff in what increasingly resembles a schoolyard stand-off between rivals determined to impress the girls.

The Conservatives don't have it all wrong - just because there is a minority government doesn't mean that they should kowtow to the other parties, agreeing to whatever cockamamie scheme the opposition dreams up. Having said that, minority status means the government's agenda must be tempered by having to face confidence votes and therefore an imperative to build temporary legislative coalitions.

Prime Minister Harper's straw-man bluster about coalitions notwithstanding, the Conservatives should propose, publicly, compromises designed to meet, or at least respect, NDP priorities including green jobs, consumer protection in financial services and an extension of EI benefits. These issues are also of interest to the Bloc Quebecois.

If the olive branch is sufficient to secure NDP and/or Bloc support, fine. The government lives to fight another day, Prime Minister Harper sheds some of his bully image, and Canadians get compassionate policy tailored to a time of economic uncertainty.

If the NDP and Bloc demur, fine too. The Liberals have forced an unnecessary election, the Tories can unleash their war room and we'll all see if Ignatieff is a political pretender or the real deal.

While the Liberals may think they have trapped the NDP, they haven't. The lifeblood, the raison d'être, of the federal NDP is holding the balance of power in Parliament. The truth, and mythology, of the NDP is that great leaders - Tommy Douglas, Stanley Knowles, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent - have patiently clung to principle, willing to suffer setback for the opportunity to leverage their parliamentary position into progress for ordinary Canadians ignored by the traditional power brokers.

One such moment may have arrived. If the NDP can force the Harper government to show more compassion for unemployed workers, cause a quicker shift to a green economy and encourage less predation in financial services, Jack Layton will have a legacy to be proud of.

If the NDP makes its principled position clear, the Harper government refuses to budge and Ignatieff proceeds to force a confidence vote, the NDP can watch the government's downfall in good conscience, knowing that they did the right thing and free of implication in Liberal recklessness.

Of course, none of these scenarios are really good for the country. Only serious electoral reform, the formation of pre or post-election party coalitions or both, will give Canadians what they deserve - a government representative of the majority of voters with a mandate to implement their agenda.

Michael Ignatieff has shown no interest in co-operating with other parties, preferring, at least it would seem, the pursuit of individual power. Harper ministers, even while needing an ally in Parliament, persist in calling the NDP "hard-core ideologues." The Bloc Quebecois is demonized as a party of "separatists." Mired in petty rivalries, bereft of inspiring policies and with nary a statesman in sight, Canadian politics has been reduced to election posturing 24/7. The party that finds the high road and stays on it will thrive in the long run.

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