Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, whose party is down in the polls and being battered by opponents, told students at a Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., school that politics is like hockey: at times you have to stand up for yourself.

"It's like hockey; You got to fight. If you don't fight, they'll take you down, so you stand and fight," Ignatieff said Wednesday in response to a question about the "negative" tone from the other parties about the Liberals.

The comment offered a look at a leader who is trying to head off the surging NDP by issuing a direct plea to Quebec voters in an open letter and by bringing out one of the Liberal Party's greatest fighters: former prime minister Jean Chrétien to campaign in Ontario.

Ignatieff, whose party has recently launched its own attacks on Jack Layton as polls show the NDP pulling past the Liberals, told the students that some of the negativity and attacks are needed "to say we're better than the other guy. We've got something better to offer."

But some of the personal attacks cross the line, he added.

 "I've been attacked in ways I can't believe. If you told me before I got into this business what some of this would be like, I couldn't have believed it myself," Ignatieff said.

"I'm still standing. I'm still here. I'm still standing, I'm still smiling."

Ignatieff admits he tried pot

At the town hall, Ignatieff was asked about his views on the decriminalization of marijuana.

"I don't want any young person in this room have their lives ruined with a criminal conviction for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

"Our government when we were in government committed to fix that. I don't want your lives to start to get ruined by a stupid mistake, but I'm opposed to the legalization of marijuana. It gets us into problems we can't manage,and so while I want to decriminalize the possession of small amounts I do not support the legalization of marijuana."

Ignatieff told reporters after the town hall that he smoked marijuana as a young man.

"And it's one of the reasons why I urge young people not to repeat the experience," he said. "It did not ruin my life, but I just think there are a lot more important and interesting things to do with your life, including a glass of wine after dinner, eh? Let's all relax here."

Letter to Quebecers

Ignatieff released the open letter to Quebecers in the morning, renewing his call for voters to stick with the Liberals.

The pitch came a day after prominent Liberals Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh issued a statement on why the two former NDP premiers — Ontario and British Columbia — quit the party and joined the Liberals.

Ignatieff and Layton both started their day in Winnipeg, as the two leaders fight to win over many of the same voters.

Several public opinion polls have shown in the past week the NDP is gaining momentum across the country. Specifically, the NDP may now be most popular party in Quebec, which has 75 seats in the House of Commons.

Speaking from the tarmac at Winnipeg airport before taking off for Sault Ste. Marie, Ignatieff warned that the anti-Conservative vote could be split, making it possible for people to elect Conservatives unintentionally.

"If you vote for Mr. Layton and the NDP, you get Stephen Harper," he said.

In his open letter, Ignatieff reiterated his argument that neither Layton nor Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe will form a government, so the best place for Quebecers to place their votes is with the Liberals.

"By its own admission, the Bloc does not seek to govern. The NDP, meanwhile, has neither the team nor the experience to govern," Ignatieff writes.

"Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton cannot become prime minister; they can only oppose [Conservative Leader Stephen] Harper. That is not good enough. The time has come to replace him."

The Liberals had been hoping for its own breakthrough in Quebec, particularly in rural parts of the province. When the election was called, the Liberals held 14 seats in Quebec.

The NDP's only seat in Quebec has been Thomas Mulcair in the Montreal riding of Outremont.

Layton was in Montreal on Tuesday, making his own push for votes in the province.

The NDP leader created a stir when he said he'd like to open constitutional talks with Quebec. Layton said it was "an historic problem" that Quebec had not signed the 1982 constitution.

That statement roused immediate denunciations from Ignatieff and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, who both argued it was not the right time to muse about a new round of constitutional negotiations.

While he didn't raise the possibility of constitutional talks, the Liberal leader tried to appeal to Quebec's sense of identity. Ignatieff said his government would practice the "federalism of respect" and would respect provincial jurisdictions.

BQ hosts large Montreal rally

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe left Montreal on Tuesday for a late-campaign swing through the rest of Quebec. The Bloc leader will be visiting Chambly, Sherbrooke and Drummondville.

Before leaving Montreal, Duceppe was feted on Tuesday night by a rally of almost 1,500 sovereigntists.

Popular Quebec artists used the rally to deliver passionate speeches about the need for sovereignty.

Duceppe picked up on the theme, telling the crowd how he and Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois are partners in the sovereignty cause and they are both necessary for Quebec to become a country.

Duceppe has never hidden his desire to make Quebec a country, but he usually doesn't wear it on his sleeve the way he's been forced to do at this stage in the campaign.

Polls seem to show a large number of even dedicated sovereignists are thinking of voting for another party, mostly the NDP. The Bloc trotted out former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau on Monday in another effort to mobilize the party's sovereigntist base.

The Bloc campaign has been faltering, and questions are already being asked about whether Duceppe will be forced to resign as leader after the May 2 election.