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An animated puffin flies off after defecating on an image of Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion in a screen shot from a Conservative website. ((CBC))

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper offered a rare apology to his rival Stéphane Dion on Tuesday for an online campaign attack ad that featured a bird defecating on the Liberal leader, which Harper called "tasteless and inappropriate."

The ad appeared to deflect attention from the Liberals' Tuesday launch of a website aimed at revamping the image of their, at times, bookish leader.

The Tory web page, which was active until Tuesday morning, featured an image of "Professor" Dion at a school blackboard, followed by puffin flying over his head and dropping excrement on Dion's shoulder.

The puffin was mentioned last year by deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as a potential mascot for the Liberal party because the "noble" birds "work like hell" and "hide their excrement." 

When asked about the site, Harper said he had not seen the specific ad, but had been assured by his national campaign manager that it was promptly taken down.

"We have enough differences with the Liberals without getting into that kind of thing," Harper told reporters at a campaign event in Winnipeg. "So it has been removed, and my apologies for having it up."

Harper 'gave a tone' to already bitter campaign: Dion

The Tories said the bird was created by an overactive web designer and not noticed by supervisors. While the puffin is still flying on the site, it is no longer defecating on Dion, who said he accepted Harper's apology.

"He went far too far today and he had to apologize," Dion told reporters outside his campaign bus during a stop in Napanee, Ont.

"I accept the apology, but I want him to commit to stop to do these low-blow attack ads," he said.

Dion also said Harper "gave a tone" to the already raucous campaign and has centralized control over all his party's advertising. He said the negative attacks would not affect his campaign.

"We'll fight with Canadian courage and with that, we'll win," he said.

For his part, NDP Leader Jack Layton called the puffin ad "childish" and said he hoped Canadians would see the "mean-spirited" attacks of both sides as a reason to change their support to the New Democrats.

"I think it betrays an attitude on the part of the PM and his team which should concern Canadians," Layton said. "It's one of the reasons I'm running for prime minister, so we can have some respect for a change."

'I have a life like everyone,' Dion says

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Dion sought to emphasize his modest roots as the son of a Quebec professor in a family of five kids in Duplessis-era Quebec.

Dion, who is known more for his privacy and intellectual image, told a crowd of Quebec supporters that he and his wife understand what Canadian families go through in figuring out how to pay the bills every month.

"I am not a rich man," Dion said. "I have a life like everyone. People need to know that, as I will affect their life."

The move is aimed at countering the Tories' ad campaign that began well before the election was called, in which Harper's role as a sweater-vested family man is emphasized.

The Liberal website, titled This Is Dion, portrays Dion as a rugged family man who loves fishing, spending time with his wife, his daughter and his dog, said the CBC's Julie Van Dusen, who is covering the campaign from Ottawa.

"It's a popularity contest between two suits, with each suit trying to look like the nicer suit, I guess, and Canadians will have to decide," Van Dusen said.

The Liberals also released a new "Scandalpedia" site on Tuesday,highlighting controversies involving the Harper government.

The Wikipedia-styled site includes entries on the resignation of Maxime Bernier, the Cadman affair and the so-called "in-and-out" scheme — in which the Tories were accused of violating spending limits on advertising during the 2006 federal election.

Candidates target vote-rich Ontario

The third full day of campaigning for the Oct. 14 election featured at least three of the five party leaders campaigning in the vote-rich battleground province of Ontario.

While Dion was in Napanee and Pickering, Harper attended a rally in Mississauga in the evening after flying in from Winnipeg.

NDP Leader Jack Layton began his day in Regina before heading to Thunder Bay for a town hall meeting later in the afternoon.