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OTTAWA (Reuters) - A campaign worker for Canada's Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper resigned on Tuesday after admitting he plagiarized large chunks of a speech that Harper delivered in 2003 while leader of the opposition.
Owen Lippert, said he "was overzealous in copying segments of another world leader's speech", when he copied parts of a speech on Iraq originally delivered by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
Neither Harper -- who was then leader of the Canadian Alliance Party -- nor his officials knew about it, said Lippert, who resigned from the Conservative Party's campaign ahead of the October 14 general election.
Earlier on Tuesday the main opposition Liberal Party played tapes from Howard's March 2003 speech, in which he spoke of the need to back the United States in its war on Iraq, and one that Harper delivered two days later, with big sections comically identical.
"It matters a lot. Canadians want that their country speak with their own voice on the world stage. It's true for the prime minister. It's true for the leader of the opposition," Liberal leader Stephane Dion told reporters.
Dion said it showed Harper was close to U.S. President George W. Bush and the coalition that invaded Iraq.
Canada's then-Liberal government refused to join the U.S.-led action.
Liberal spokesman Michael Gendron later accused Harper of making Lippert a scapegoat. Immediately prior to the campaign, Lippert had been a senior policy adviser to International Aid Minister Bev Oda.
For Harper, the flap was an unwelcome diversion from preparations for the 37-day campaign's two national debates on Wednesday and Thursday.
The broadcast consortium running the debates, which will be two hours each in French and English, agreed on Tuesday to a request by Harper to extend the amount of time devoted to the economy.
Originally only 12 minutes had been planned for that part of the debates, but that time will be extended by eliminating the leaders' opening and closing statements.
For Liberal leader Dion, who has been unable to electrify the electorate with his proposal for a carbon tax, accompanied by income tax cuts and subsidies, the debates represent a crucial time to turn around a struggling campaign.
"It's difficult to see how he can do that, but this is his last chance in a sense to do it," said York University political scientist Robert Drummond. He doubted the plagiarism flap would resonate much with voters.
Currently, the Conservatives have a polling lead of seven to 11 percentage points over the Liberals.
For anyone looking to make a breakthrough in the debates, one problem is there are five party leaders taking part, raising the possibility of an unproductive cacophony.
"It's hard to mount a sustained challenge to your opponent -- each one of them may have a different opponent in mind as a primary target -- in a five-way debate," said University of Manitoba professor Paul Thomas.
Dion has the advantage of low expectations, but he has to hope Canadians actually watch. Thursday's English-language debate coincides with the U.S. vice-presidential clash between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.
"I'll be channel-flicking," former Liberal Ontario Premier David Peterson admitted recently in a radio interview.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson