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Ignatieff's sparkle brightens Liberal hopes

Stephen Harper looks like a man afraid to lose. And Michael Ignatieff looks like that most dangerous of opponents: a man with nothing to lose at all.

Of all the federal leaders, it was Mr. Harper who came into this strange and sudden spring election campaign from a position of strength. Leading in the polls, with the benefit of experience and a well-oiled party machine behind him, he was supposed to steamroll right over Michael Ignatieff.

But the Liberal Leader is surprising even his own handlers with his comfort on the campaign trail. And he shows signs of making the Conservatives pay for underestimating him, and for conditioning the public - through advertisements that portrayed Mr. Ignatieff as a bumbling dilettante - to do likewise.

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It's enormously unlikely that Mr. Ignatieff will defeat Mr. Harper outright in this election. It's improbable that he'll even cost him many of his current seats. But if Mr. Harper is to win a majority government - without which, by the bar he himself has set, his campaign will be a failure - he may need to start adjusting to the game Mr. Ignatieff is playing.

What Mr. Ignatieff is doing, with surprising effectiveness thus far, is challenging the campaign model that Mr. Harper and his strategists have turned into the modern orthodoxy.

In place of rigid message discipline, the Liberal Leader is venturing into any number of unscripted and unpredictable situations. He's taking more questions from reporters and from the public than he needs to; he's throwing himself at the mercy of hostile restaurant-goers; he's laying down challenges to the Tory Leader over Twitter.

Having seemed previously to lack stamina, Mr. Ignatieff appears to be actively enjoying the rigours of the hustings. And that sense of energy is rubbing off, not least on media looking to turn a potentially dreary campaign into a more compelling story.

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, has gone command-and-control in a big way. He's taking only five questions a day from journalists. He's avoiding unscripted encounters with members of the public. Unsurprisingly, he wants no part of the one-on-one debate for which Mr. Ignatieff is lobbying.

In many ways a classic front-runner's campaign, Mr. Harper's approach involves carefully avoiding mistakes and waiting for his flailing challenger to make them instead.

That may well come to pass; Mr. Ignatieff displays the sort of eagerness to please that has gotten many past leaders - Paul Martin springs to mind - into all kinds of trouble. A week mostly free of gaffes, before he's even released his platform, doesn't prove he'll withstand the scrutiny of a full campaign.

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But if he keeps it up and they don't adjust, the Conservatives have a problem. It's not that the Liberals are about to surge wildly ahead in the polls. But already, Mr. Ignatieff shows signs of fulfilling two prerequisites to a competitive campaign.

One of those, and the one that seemed like a Herculean undertaking at the campaign's outset, is rallying his fractious party behind him.

The results of this election will be determined less by national communications strategies than by the ground war in a small number of battleground ridings. The Liberals will not be able to match the Conservatives' organization, which is infinitely more sophisticated than their own. But they at least need to match their energy and sense of common purpose in order to have a fighting chance.

Mr. Ignatieff's confidence on the road seems to have at least temporarily put an end to the endless sniping from fellow Liberals. There is little discussion of Bob Rae's leadership ambitions, and anonymous Liberal MPs have stopped providing detailed critiques of everything Mr. Ignatieff does. Instead, the rank-and-file show signs of being motivated to work for a leader they believe is an asset rather than a liability.

The other big goal of the Liberals is to convey the impression of a two-way race. Working in their favour, and beyond the Conservatives' control, is that Jack Layton's NDP had a tough first week. But Mr. Harper provided a big assist, with his mishandling of the debate question.

Indeed, if there was one issue that typified the strange dynamics of Week 1, that was surely it. In a rare public misstep, Mr. Harper said he would welcome a one-on-one debate with Mr. Ignatieff. Then, when the Liberal Leader publicly took him up on it, the Conservative Leader meekly backed away.

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Perhaps it was just a blip, a momentary shift in the power dynamic. Perhaps that's what this whole week was. But strange things can happen when the stakes are so much higher for one side than the other. And Mr. Harper looking scared of Mr. Ignatieff, rather than the other way around, is right up there.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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