Debate viewers impressed with Clark

After their last chance to confront each other face to face, Canada's political leaders head toward the election hoping to have done themselves some good, or their opponents some damage, in the debates.

An Ekos Research study sponsored by the CBC showed that for the second night, the leader who scored the best on both counts may have been Conservative Joe Clark.

As the five major party leaders sparred on national television for the second consecutive night Thursday, they raised familiar issues and their voices in what sometimes deteriorated into a free-for-all.

But several members of the Ekos-CBC study, which was conducted in Halifax, Toronto and Winnipeg with Canadians from different walks of life, backgrounds and political leanings, said they were most impressed with Clark.

"I would almost tend to lean towards him, now," said one woman in Halifax.

Alexa McDonough of the NDP also scored well with these groups. Liberal Leader Jean Chrtien and Stockwell Day of the Canadian Alliance did not.

One of the first questions dealt with a referendum on abortion, one of the last with why Chrtien's majority government even called the election.

Squabbling "distracting"

In between there was plenty of squabbling, including heated moments when all five drowned each other out.

That particular aspect of the debate didn't impress the viewers in the Ekos study. They said they would rather see the leaders present policy.

"The mud slinging really distracted from the real issues," said one man. "It took up a lot of unnecessary time, I think, that could have been better spent discussing the real issues."

Abortion issue

Conservative Leader Joe Clark accused Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day of being dishonest with voters, suggesting Day has a "secret agenda" that includes making abortions illegal in Canada.

Day responded by saying that his party has no official position on banning abortions. Although he personally believes that "life begins at conception," Day said that it would be up to Canadians to outlaw abortions through a national referendum.

Clark continued to take shots at Day, accusing him of not being courageous enough to specify how many citizens would have to sign a petition before such a referendum would be held.

Chrtien accused of daring Quebecers to a referendum

The Alliance leader, meanwhile, spent most of his time attacking Chrtien, arguing that the most divisive referendum wouldn't be on abortion but on national unity.

Day chastised the Liberal leader for recently "swaggering" into Quebec and "daring" Quebecers to hold another vote on separation.

Chrtien defended his government's position on clarifying rules for the next referendum on sovereignty, as well as everything from gun control legislation to government spending.

McDonough said all of the other candidates were more interested in using the federal government's surplus on tax cuts rather than dealing with child poverty, homelessness, and improvements to health care.

At one point Day stepped from his podium and moved toward Chrtien, demanding the Liberal leader withdraw his "wild accusations" about the Alliance's medicare policies. Day also held up a sign that read: "No two-tier health care."

Chrtien, who quoted members of Day's own party in his continued attacks against the Alliance's health-care position, muttered "Stunt a l'Americain" when the sign appeared.

Clark said Day looked more like he was trying to win a job as a game-show host rather than become Canada's next prime minister.