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Page last updated at 09:26 GMT, Thursday, 2 October 2008 10:26 UK

Rivals feud in Canada poll debate

Jack Layton, New Democrats; Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Conservatives; Gilles Duceppe, Bloc Quebecois; Elizabeth May, Green Party; and Liberal leader Stephane Dion pose for photographs before the French language debate
It was nearly all smiles before the debate began

Canadian political leaders have argued over the economy as they tussled in the first of two televised debates ahead of the 14 October general election.

The debate, in French, saw PM Stephen Harper insist Canada's economy was solid as his rivals attacked him.

The English-language debate is set for Thursday night, amid criticism that it will overlap with the eagerly awaited vice-presidential debate in the US.

Mr Harper's Conservatives were elected in 2006 but without a majority.

His move to call a snap poll is seen as a bid to capitalise on favourable opinion polls and win an overall majority in parliament this time round, correspondents say.

'Laissez-faire'

Wednesday night's debate focussed heavily on the repercussions of the US financial crisis, with the four opposition leaders training their attacks on Mr Harper and drawing comparisons with US President George W Bush.

"You are the economic risk," Liberal leader Stephane Dion, Mr Harper's main rival, said.

Democrati Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin
Their clash could prove a bigger draw for Canadian viewers

"You don't believe in the role of government in the economy. We need to have a government that believes in the role of government."

Gilles Duceppe, leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, was even more pointed.

"Mr Harper is a fan of the laissez-faire approach to the economy, like Mr Bush, and we can see the disaster unfolding now in the United States."

Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Jack Layton of the New Democrats also accused the prime minister of failed economic policies.

Mr Harper conceded that the country faced "a period of uncertainty" but insisted that the fundamentals were "strong" and that Canada had a budget surplus.

"The big challenge, as far as I'm concerned, is to stay on the right track to ensure that we continue to lower taxes, to target our spending, base them on the real needs of real Canadians and to keep in surplus mode," Mr Harper said.

'Not riveting

With the election approaching, the TV debates are a key stage in the campaign.

Canada's television networks have been criticised for scheduling the English-language debate for 2100 EDT (0100 GMT) on Thursday.

That is the same time as Republican Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Democratic Senator Joe Biden square off in their highly anticipated US vice-presidential debate.

"I'll be watching Palin and catching the highlights of the Canadian debate on the news," Steve Weiner, a dentist, told the Associated Press.

Canadians closely follow presidential elections in the US, but the 2008 campaign has generated even more interest than usual.

"What's happening in the States is pretty riveting, ours is not so riveting," Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) anchor Peter Mansbridge told AP.




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