Televised debate a key test for Canada opposition

* Opposition Liberal boss must excel in televised debate

* Polls show ruling Conservatives will win election

* Liberal leader likely to focus on ethics

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA, April 12 (Reuters) – A prime-time televised debate
on Tuesday could make or break the election campaign for
Canada’s opposition Liberals, which need a strong showing from
leader Michael Ignatieff to have a chance in what is now a
lopsided race.

The two-hour English-language debate — which in the last
election was watched by around 40 percent of Canadians — is a
chance for the former academic to shake off Conservative attack
ads portraying him as elitist and out of touch.

Ignatieff’s party badly trails the Conservatives, who have
been in power since early 2006 and are seeking a third
consecutive victory in the May 2 election.

“Michael Ignatieff probably needs a knockout in this to
really, really change things … at the very least I think he
has got to surprise the electorate,” said Allan Gregg of
polling firm Harris Decima.

The debate between Ignatieff, Prime Minister Stephen Harper
and the leaders of two smaller opposition parties starts at 7
p.m. (2300 GMT) on Tuesday and is particularly important, since
English is Canada’s most widely spoken language.

A debate in French — Canada’s other official language —
will start at the same time on Wednesday.

Ignatieff said he has drawn inspiration from South African
golfer Charl Schwartzel, who emerged from the pack to win the
Masters championship in Augusta, Georgia, on Sunday.

“This great young South African guy just had nerves of
steel and so we’re going to need nerves of steel Tuesday
night,” he told reporters on Monday.

Past televised political debates in Canada have degenerated
into indecisive and messy bickering, with few decisive blows
being landed, as four or five political leaders struggle to
make key points.

With that in mind, this week’s debates will now feature
six-minute sections where two leaders face each other.

“It’s a moment when all the filters fall away, all the
attack ads fall away … and it’s me and Mr. Harper in front of
the Canadian people,” Ignatieff said.

The Liberal leader — who says a series of ethical problems
means Harper cannot be trusted — will most likely focus on a
draft auditor’s report that said the government misled
Parliament over spending plans last year.

The Conservatives say later versions of the report contain
no such findings. Conservative government minister John Baird
told reporters that “Not a single penny is missing.”

Alexandre Sevigny, an associate professor of communication
studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said
Harper simply needs to avoid making mistakes.

“The prime minister would, I think, very much like for it
to be a bore and a kind of nonevent and continue coasting on
his (polling) numbers, which have been pretty unwavering up to
now,” he told Reuters.

The Conservatives have support levels around 40 percent in
recent Canadian opinion polls, compared with around 30 percent
for the Liberals. Under Canada’s voting system, that might be
enough to guarantee a Conservative majority government that
does not need support from other parties to stay in power.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Janet Guttsman)

Televised debate a key test for Canada opposition