Ottawa: Canada`s Prime Minister faced off against three opposition leaders in a crucial election debate that pitted his "stay the course" deficit-slaying economics against leftist calls for change.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper`s fellow Conservatives need to elect only 12 more MPs to form a majority government, building on the 143 of 308 seats in Parliament the Tories had prior to its dissolution.
Opinion polls suggest he will likely achieve this goal after coming close but falling short in 2006 and 2008.
But with one quarter of voters still undecided, each leader`s performance during the debates could hugely affect the election outcome.
In this first of two televised debates this week, Harper asked voters to return his Conservatives to Parliament with a majority of MPs to continue growing the economy while warning that spendthrift policies of his rivals would endanger Canada`s recovery.
"The Canadian economy has been performing well coming out of this recession stronger and faster than others" under the Tories` leadership, he said.
But the election of three consecutive minority governments since 2004 "is beginning to put some of the country`s interests in serious jeopardy," he warned.
"If we have a minority government my fear is we`ll go through a fifth election and a sixth election."
This ballot was triggered by the Liberals backed by the New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois voting no confidence in Harper`s minority government and in an unprecedented move declaring it in contempt of parliament.
Harper`s main rival, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff accused the Tories of having "stonewalled" Parliament on details of its core spending priorities, breaking election laws and misleading Parliament.
Harper shot back accusing the opposition parties of ganging up to force through the contempt motion: "You three voted against us. I don`t agree with it. I don`t think it`s based on any realistic facts but you were determined to have an election, whether the public wanted an election or not."
Ignatieff, in his first election debate since the Harvard academic arrived on the Canadian political scene in 2006 after decades spent abroad, sought to keep the focus on character and core values.
"We`re having an election because you didn`t tell Canadians the truth," he said. "You didn`t tell Parliament the truth."
He blasted Harper for diluting Canada`s prestige on the world stage, spending wildly to host a G8 summit last year, and for characterising squabbling in the House as a distraction.
"This isn`t bickering," he said. "This is democracy."
At the same time, he found himself jousting with New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton for leftist votes.
"There you go saying the only alternative for Canadians is your party," Layton said to Ignatieff. "That`s the kind of arrogant, self aggrandisement we`re so used to from the Liberals."
Layton also accused Ignatieff of being mostly absent in Parliament (missing 70 percent of votes) and his Liberals of failing on climate change, flip-flopping on corporate tax breaks and helping the Tories push through a loathed consumption tax.
To Harper, whom he has twice before debated, Layton had this to say: "I`m remembering a Stephen Harper once upon a time who came here to change Ottawa, who was going to stick up for the little guy but you`ve become what you used to oppose. You`ve changed."
The party leaders also crossed swords over law and order, immigration and health care issues.
Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, who had strong showings in past election debates, failed to land any big punches this round. But he reminded reporters afterwards about a second debate scheduled for Wednesday in French, his mother tongue.
Canadians head to the ballot box on May 02.