Conservative Leader Stephen Harper says a re-elected Conservative government would commit to a loan guarantee or equivalent financial support for the $6.2-billion Lower Churchill hydroelectric project in Labrador.

The pledge from Harper drew a standing ovation Thursday in St. John's as he took his election campaign to Atlantic Canada.

Harper said the Conservatives will support energy projects that make economic sense, that provide national or regional benefits, and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

With those criteria in mind, Harper said, his government will provide a loan guarantee or equivalent financial support for the Lower Churchill plan, which would generate electricity at Muskrat Falls on the Churchill River and then pipe the energy to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and perhaps beyond.

Quebec's Liberal government insists it is all for green power, even if it comes from Newfoundland  — as long as Ottawa stays out of it.

Quebec's Natural Resources Minister Nathalie Normandeau said Thursday that federal help for Newfoundland would allow it to undercut Hydro-Quebec's profits in the lucrative export of power.

Newfoundland and Labrador, along with Nova Scotia, has been seeking federal loan guarantees as well as support through an infrastructure program.

The New Brunswick government has also endorsed the megaproject. There is a potential for having the hydro power sent through New Brunswick to the highly coveted U.S. market.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe was asked about federal loan guarantees for the Lower Churchill project earlier Thursday, and said the Tory government is trying to buy the hearts of Newfoundlanders with Quebecers' money.

"We paid [for] our hydroelectricity network by ourselves, every penny of it," he said. "And now we'll pay with part of our money to help other provinces to [compete with] ourselves? It makes no sense."

Harper's East Coast swing marked the first time any of the political leaders had ventured into Atlantic Canada since the campaign kicked off last weekend.

The Conservatives are trying engineer an electoral turnaround in Newfoundland and Labrador, where former premier Danny Williams waged the controversial but effective "anything but Conservative" campaign in 2008.

In contrast, Harper stood smiling Thursday on a stage next to Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale, who has been keen to obtain federal support for the Lower Churchill development.

Harper's message in St. John's was markedly different in tone from remarks he made earlier in Halifax, when he said he liked the Lower Churchill plan, but said that much needed to be to done before a deal could be struck.

"There is a lot of discussion still to come, but it is obviously an important project," Harper told reporters in Halifax.

"He's treating us like dimwits," said Liberal MP Gerry Byrne, who represents the western Newfoundland riding of Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte.

Byrne said Harper's Halifax comments probably better reflect the project's status, and that voters in Newfoundland and Labrador will not easily forget the ABC campaign of less than three years ago.

"That breach of trust was deepened today," Byrne told CBC News. "The gap was not narrowed today, it was widened."

Debate over debate

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NDP Leader Jack Layton talks with a technician at a computer recycling operation during a campaign stop in Montreal on Thursday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

All three parties seemed to be moving beyond the question of whether Green Party Leader Elizabeth May would take part in televised leaders debates. The broadcasting consortium that controls the debates decided late Wednesday to leave her out of them.

The Green Party, however, launched a court challenge of regulations that state the broadcasters, which include CBC/Radio-Canada, are not required to include all leaders of political parties in debate programs.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff also accused Harper of backing out of a proposed one-on-one leaders' debate after the Conservative leader downplayed the possibility of such a showdown on Thursday.

Ignatieff went to Lord Roberts Preschool in Winnipeg to announce his plan to give the provinces $500 million for early childhood learning. He said the program would ramp up to $1 billion a year by its fourth year.

"These programs very consciously and deliberately have been constructed with pre-consultation with provincial authorities and provincial experts, because the key thing here is to act, to get it done for Canadian families," Ignatieff said.

Provincial governments could apply to the fund to pay for extra spaces in daycare and early childhood learning programs or train daycare workers. The Liberals would roll back a corporate tax cut that came into force in January in order to pay for the plan, he said.

"We'll have a flexible fund and we can get this thing moving. We don't need to have another three or four years of argument and negotiation." 

To cap off the day, Ignatieff was expected to participate in a town hall discussion at the Lamplighter Inn in London, Ont., at 7:30 p.m. local time.

Layton targets oilsands subsidies

In Montreal, NDP Leader Jack Layton said his party would cut the fossil fuel subsidies for Alberta's oilsands and funnel that money instead into paying for clean power initiatives. He was touring an environmentally friendly business park.

"Stephen Harper is handing billions to oil companies developing Canada's dirtiest energy sources, like the tarsands," Layton said. "As prime minister, I'll cancel his dirty fuels subsidy and put that money into clean energy solutions instead."

He was also to tape Tout le monde en parle, the tremendously popular Sunday television program that is viewed by millions of Quebecers each week.