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Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, shown speaking Sunday during a Liberal celebration of women in politics event in Toronto, is in Ottawa on Monday to address the nursing shortage. ((Nathan Denette/Canadian Press))

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said Monday he will use his first appearance in this week's federal leaders' debates to introduce himself to Canadians and counter the negative image of him cultivated by the Conservatives.

Polls throughout the first three weeks of the Oct. 14 election campaign have suggested Dion is lagging behind in terms of how Canadians view his leadership abilities.  

Speaking in Ontario, Dion said he is confident he will be able to show Canadians he is not the meek academic figure the Conservatives have spent millions trying to define him as in their national advertising campaigns, which began airing months before the writ was dropped.

Dion noted that Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton have two rounds of the French and English debates under their belts, while Gilles Duceppe is entering his fifth as Bloc Québécois leader.

"I'm a rookie in this kind of debate, so I need to prepare myself, certainly," Dion told reporters at Algonquin College in Ottawa after speaking about Canada's nursing shortage. 

"I need to be ready because Canadians want to know me."

He said the debates, which are taking place on Wednesday and Thursday, will be the first time "many Canadians will see me in their living room."

"So it's very important for me to give them the conviction that we Liberals are ready to lead this country with a progressive platform, bringing together our environmental, social and economic goals, and then delivering well-paid jobs, green jobs for Canadians," he said.

Dion and the Liberals are expected to take a more aggressive approach in the days ahead of the debates, as recent polls suggest support for his party is flagging, said the CBC's Julie Van Dusen, who is covering the election.

The change in strategy comes as the Liberals have "been accused of having a lacklustre campaign and a lacklustre leader," Van Dusen said.

The Liberal leader lambasted Harper's controversial anti-crime announcements last week as policies proven ineffective in lowering the crime rate in the United States.

"He wants to be elected on fear, not reason," he said. "We have to settle crime in Canada, but we have to choose the good policies."

Dion also took aim at NDP Leader Jack Layton's appeal to Liberal voters disaffected with his leadership, saying the New Democrats were taking an "old-fashioned socialist" approach with their platform.

"This platform has been rejected everywhere as something completely unrealistic that would kill jobs and put our savings at risk," he said.

Liberals 'always will be' party of centre: Ignatieff

Meanwhile, Dion's former leadership rival, Liberal deputy leader Michael Ignatieff, told a Toronto business audience on Monday that Harper's Conservatives would risk the Canadian economy by trying to weaken the federal government "at the very moment the world is turning to government to protect them.

In a fiery response to Harper's accusation last week that Dion and the Liberals were "cheering" for a recession, Ignatieff said his party, unlike the Conservatives, believes in "sound money, balanced budgets, low taxes and personal responsibility."

He called the federal election a "battleground for the centre of Canadian political life" amid global economic fears stemming from uncertainty over U.S. financial markets. 

"Mr. Harper wants you to believe that our party has abandoned the centre ground, he wants to you believe that we’ve shifted left — he’s wrong," Ignatieff said during his address to the Economic Club of Toronto.

"The party I joined in 1965, the party of Mike Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and Stéphane Dion is a party of the centre. It always has been and it always will be."

He added Canadians "have long memories" when it comes to politics and past deficits of Conservative governments, repeating the Liberals' mantra of "Tory times are tough times."

Harper has accused the Liberals of putting forth an "untested" policy with Dion's Green Shift plan, which calls for income tax cuts paid for by a tax on carbon fuels, while touting his party's modest proposals as a sensible course in a time of economic uncertainty.

But Ignatieff said the Harper government's economic record is a "litany of failures," citing dwindling federal surpluses, massive job losses in Canada's manufacturing sector and Canada's economic growth forecast being ranked worst among G8 nations.

"The man who says all's well with the Canadian economy? That's not leadership; that is wilful self-delusion," he said.

Harper aims to counter Bloc poll surge in Quebec

The Conservative leader began Monday in Ottawa by promising a new tax credit for children's arts activities before heading to Val d'Or, Que., in an attempt to reverse losses at the polls to the Bloc in the province in recent days.

Harper once again took aim at Dion's platform, saying the Liberals' proposals are "untested, grandiose, theoretical and will be financed by higher taxes and deficits."

Increased scrutiny in the last week over the arts cuts and the Conservatives' pledge to get tougher on young offenders convicted of serious crimes such as murder or manslaughter have hurt Harper in Quebec, said Van Dusen.

"Look for him to perhaps … take a different approach, or try to stop that bleeding that's going over to the Bloc Québécois."

Also on Monday, NDP Leader Jack Layton pledged a New Democratic government would contribute a portion of the federal gas excise tax to transit in cities.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe will be in Laval.

Green Leader Elizabeth May will campaign in Stellarton, N.S., before heading to Toronto, where she will appear on CBC Newsworld's Your Turn.

Do you have a question for Elizabeth May? Send it to national@cbc.ca for The National's Your Turn with the Green party leader on Sept. 29.