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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The last sprint to catch Prime Minister Stephen Harper began on Friday, with political leaders fanning out across Canada after debates in which no knock-out punches appeared to have been landed.
Harper, elected to a minority government in January 2006, has maintained a strong polling lead in the current campaign and time is running out ahead of the October 14 election.
Harper was the main focus of the attacks in Wednesday's and Thursday's debates, but he said afterwards that that actually gave him more air time as he was often given time to respond.
He also benefits from the fact that his four main party rivals are on the left or center-left, leaving the prospect of his getting a stronger mandate even if he wins only the 36 percent of the popular vote he won last time.
"Ganging four against one is a good way to win a debate; having a gang-of-four parties divide all the votes clustered to the left of the Conservatives is a better way to lose an election," Toronto Star columnist James Travers wrote.
A subtext to the race to become prime minister is the fierce dogfight between Liberal leader Stephane Dion, now head of Parliament's second largest party, and Jack Layton, leader of the fourth-largest, New Democratic Party.
The Liberals have usually governed Canada, and when they have not been in power they have always been in second place, but Layton says Dion abandoned his responsibilities in the past year by refusing to topple Harper's government.
"We are the ones who are going to replace Mr. Harper, and of course Mr. Dion had his decision to prop up Mr. Harper, and that is something he'll have to explain to people," Layton told reporters in Montreal early on Friday morning, barely nine hours after the end of the debates in Ottawa.
Dion has proposed new carbon taxes to fight climate change, accompanied by income tax cuts and subsidies, but this has proved to be a tough sell at a time when energy prices are already high.
He has seen his party's polling numbers languish around 25 percent, worryingly below what had long been assumed to be the bedrock of Liberal support.
"Only an extreme make-over could turn the Liberal campaign around," Ottawa Sun columnist Greg Weston wrote from Thursday night's debate. "It didn't happen."
The other two party leaders are Gilles Duceppe of the separatist Bloc Quebecois and Elizabeth May of the fledgling Green Party, which has only one member of Parliament and won huge new exposure by being allowed into the debates for the first time.
An Ekos poll released on Friday showed a slightly increased lead of 36 percent for the Conservatives to 24 percent for the Liberals, 19 percent for the New Democrats, 11 percent for the Greens and 10 percent for the Bloc. Ekos said this was nearly enough for a Conservative majority in Parliament.
Top of mind in the current campaign is the economy, with Layton proposed to cancel corporate tax cuts, Dion and May both advocating carbon taxes and Dion proposing urgent talks with Canada's regulatory authorities.
Harper has urged a steady-as-she-goes approach. He says now is not the time for major new taxes or spending and says Canada's financial sector is well-capitalized and well-regulated, and that Canadians were for the most part not losing their homes as in the United States.
Still, he came under attack in the lead editorial of The Globe and Mail newspaper, saying he was "the most in denial about the economic storm brewing...This is not leadership, it's lackadaisical."
The Ekos poll surveyed 3,192 decided voters over the past three days, for a 1.7-point margin of error.
Editing by Frank McGurty