Harper victorious in English debates, survey suggests

After facing a barrage from his opponents for two nights straight, Conservative Stephen Harper appears to have emerged as the winner from Thursday's English-language debate, a post-debate poll suggests.

Poll respondents give Layton close 2nd-place finish ahead of May; Dion ranks 4th

Green party Leader Elizabeth May, front left, responds to a question as, clockwise from left, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, NDP Leader Jack Layton, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper listen during Thursday's English-language debate in Ottawa. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

After facing a barrage from his opponents for two nights straight, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper appears to have emerged as the winner from Thursday's English-language debate, a post-debate poll suggests.

The Ipsos-Reid online survey for CanWest News Service said 31 per cent of respondents believed Harper won the second debate, after a similar poll by the company had Harper trailing Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and NDP Leader Jack Layton after Wednesday's French-language event.

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"I encourage every Canadian voter to watch the debate for themselves to form their own opinions for who was on top."

—Big Red Canuck

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The online survey of 2,512 people placed Layton in second place with 25 per cent giving him the win, while Green Leader Elizabeth May came in third place with 17 per cent support.

Dion, who was named the winner of the French-language debates by a previous Ipsos-Reid poll, received only 11 per cent.

Ipsos-Reid said that while online surveys do not have margins of error because they do not rely on random samples that mirror the population, a similar sample of this size with 100 per cent response rate would be considered accurate within 1.96 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Three million Canadians tuned in to the debate Thursday night. Of the two English debates held during the last election, the first drew 1.9 million viewers while the second attracted 3.1 million.

As he did in the French debate, Harper again faced blistering criticism Thursday from the four opposition party leaders, who accused the Conservative leader of not having a plan to deal with effects of the U.S. financial crisis.

Harper accuses Dion of 'panicking'

The CBC's Julie Van Dusen, who is covering the election in Ottawa, reported that Harper maintained his composure on Thursday during the continued assaults at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

"[Harper] took a lot of hits very calmly in an unruffled way on pretty well any topic you can think of, from the environment to culture cuts to youth crime to his position on Iraq," Van Dusen said.

"I gather someone must have told him … if you fight back or get too partisan, you're going to alienate voters, especially women," she said.

However, Harper wasn't on the defensive when he took aim at Dion, accusing the Liberal leader of "panicking" by revealing a five-point economic plan in the previous night's French-language debate.

Dion dismissed Harper's criticism, saying: "Mr. Harper, you have shown only that you have no idea what to do except to distort the Liberal platform."

"Stéphane Dion was very sincere," said Van Dusen, adding that he made some good points about his much-maligned Green Shift plan, which seeks to offset a tax on carbon emissions with income tax cuts.

Speaking on Friday in Montreal, the Liberal leader said he achieved what he set out to accomplish during the two debates.

"People wanted to know more about me," Dion said. "I think they had the opportunity to see what I want to do for my country, and how much I'm committed and ready to be prime minister of this country."

But Dion had to also endure charges from Layton, who accused the Liberals of keeping Harper in power by abstaining from confidence votes during the Tory leader's minority government.

Layton also directed his fair share of broadsides at Harper.

"Where's the platform, under the sweater?" he asked Harper, in a reference to Conservative campaign ads that tried to soften Harper's image by portraying him as a smiling, sweater-clad leader.

Speaking on Friday in Montreal, Layton offered praise for May —the one leader he and Harper initially sought to prevent from participating in the debates. He said he "thoroughly enjoyed" the contribution of the Green party leader, who called Harper's environmental record "a fraud."

Duceppe to press Harper on Iraq concession

Speaking to reporters on Friday in Ottawa before his speech in Toronto, Duceppe said he was satisfied with his performances in the debates.

The Bloc leader said he was happy to have forced Harper to admit his support of joining the Iraq war in 2003 was a mistake, adding he will use the admission in the campaign as "Exhibit A" that the Conservative leader lacks solid judgment.

Duceppe also said Harper was weakened when he confirmed he does not support a refundable tax credit for the manufacturing industry to encourage companies to improve productivity.

The Bloc leader was also responsible for one of the night's most frank utterances.

"I know I won't be prime minister and three of you won't be prime minister neither," he said during the debate, gesturing at Dion, Layton and May around the table. "Some of you know it, but you won't say it."

On Friday, the Bloc leader also acknowledged Layton put on a strong performance in the English debate, but appeared to feel pity when discussing Dion.

"He really had trouble with his English," Duceppe said, shaking his head.