OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's prime minister shook off tough blows in a key televised debate with opposition leaders and emerged unwounded and likely to win the May 2 election, analysts and media said on Wednesday.
Most opinion polls ahead of Tuesday night's debate between Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the three opposition leaders showed the Conservatives were set to retain power. But experts said the two-hour English-language debate might be a good chance for Michael Ignatieff, leader of the main opposition Liberal Party, to win over voters.
Most observers felt Ignatieff did well, but none thought he had delivered enough blows to damage Harper.
"At the end of the day not one Canadian changed their opinion of Stephen Harper and that's probably fine with him," said Allan Gregg of polling firm Harris Decima.
"(Ignatieff) was very articulate ... I thought he showed some passion. Will it make enough to make a difference? I don't think so," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Ignatieff, a former academic and broadcaster, took over the Liberals after the 2008 election that handed the Conservatives their second minority government.
In a flash Internet poll by Ipsos-Reid, 42 percent felt Harper had won the debate while 23 percent gave the victory to Ignatieff. Jack Layton, leader of the small, left-leaning New Democrats, outscored Ignatieff with 25 percent.
Those numbers would come as a relief to the Conservatives, since an Ekos automated phone poll showed a sharp narrowing of their lead in the two days prior to the debate, to five percentage points from 8.5 points last week.
The Ekos poll of 1,238 voters had the Conservatives ahead of the Liberals by only 33.8 percent to 28.8 percent. A Nanos phone survey covering April 10-12 put the Conservatives 9.5 points ahead.
The four leaders will meet again on Wednesday night at 8 p.m. for a debate in French, Canada's other official language. Most Canadians speak English.
"Starting tonight in the French-language debate, the Liberal leader will need to start making up the ground between him and Harper, who by now may be starting to believe he can catch a glimpse of his treasured majority," the Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation newspaper, said in its main editorial.
Harper says he needs a majority of seats in Parliament so he can oversee the recovery from the 2008 global crisis without the kind of "bickering" which he said occurred in a minority.
The three opposition parties brought down the government last month, arguing it had shown contempt for Parliament by not being open about its spending plans.
The French-language debate is aimed mainly at voters in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, which accounts for 75 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.
Most of the province's seats are held by the Bloc Quebecois, which seeks independence for Quebec. The Conservatives hold 11 Quebec seats and polls suggest they will have trouble holding on to them.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Janet Guttsman