The leaders of Canada's four political parties faced off in the first debate Tuesday before a federal election next month, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper fending off attacks and asking Canadians for a majority government.
Analysts say main opposition Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff needed a strong showing to have a chance in the May 2 election. Ignatieff didn't shake Harper and he stumbled over his prepared lines.
Polls say Harper looks set for a third term. This time he is asking voters to give him a majority in the 308-member House of Commons; he has avoided that previously, wary of being accused of right-wing overreach.
Harper said Canada should focus on the economy and doesn't need the "bickering" seen in the debate. This is Canada's fourth election in seven years, reflecting the failure of either major party to obtain a parliamentary majority and leaving successive governments dependent on opposition votes to stay in power.
"What we are asking _ in an election we didn't want, in an election Canadians didn't want _ we're asking Canadians to make the decision: Do you want to have this kind of bickering, do you want to have another election in two years? Or do you want a focus on the economy?" Harper said looking directly into the camera.
Ignatieff countered: "This isn't bickering, Mr. Harper. This is democracy."
Ignatieff charged that Harper hasn't earned the right to a majority because he doesn't respect democratic institutions. He called Harper "a man who will shut down anything he can't control."
Harper stirred controversy by suspending Parliament temporarily and was censured for failing to brief the body fully on critical financial decisions. Those issues and his determination to cut corporate taxes led to the motions that brought down his government and forced the current election.
Harper also came under fire amid fresh accusations of dubious Conservative government spending ahead of the G-8 and G-20 summit meetings in Ontario last summer which cost more than $1 billion. A leaked draft report by Canada's auditor general said the government misinformed Parliament to win approval for a $50-million G-8 fund that lavished money on questionable projects in Conservative Industry Minister Tony Clement's district.
Harper denied the money was spent improperly. "Every single dollar is accounted for," Harper said.
As prime minister, Harper has won two elections in a row. Despite never commanding a majority in Parliament, he has managed to nudge an instinctively liberal country ever further to the right.
Harper, 51, has gradually lowered sales and corporate taxes, increased spending on the military and made Arctic sovereignty a priority.
Ignatieff, 63, is one of Canada's leading intellectuals: an author, historian and a TV panel regular in Britain before going into politics. Repeated Conservative attack ads have painted Ignatieff as an outsider who spent 30-plus years outside Canada.