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OTTAWA (Reuters) - A prime-time televised debate on Tuesday could make or break the election campaign for the Liberals, which need a strong showing from leader Michael Ignatieff to have a chance in what is now a lopsided race.
The two-hour English-language debate -- which in the last election was watched by around 40 percent of Canadians -- is a chance for the former academic to shake off Conservative attack ads portraying him as elitist and out of touch.
Ignatieff's party badly trails the Conservatives, who have been in power since early 2006 and are seeking a third consecutive victory in the May 2 election.
"Michael Ignatieff probably needs a knockout in this to really, really change things ... at the very least I think he has got to surprise the electorate," said Allan Gregg of polling firm Harris Decima.
The debate between Ignatieff, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the leaders of two smaller opposition parties starts at 7 p.m. on Tuesday and is particularly important, since English is Canada's most widely spoken language.
A debate in French -- Canada's other official language -- will start at the same time on Wednesday.
Ignatieff said he has drawn inspiration from South African golfer Charl Schwartzel, who emerged from the pack to win the Masters championship in Augusta, Georgia, on Sunday.
"This great young South African guy just had nerves of steel and so we're going to need nerves of steel Tuesday night," he told reporters on Monday.
Past televised political debates in Canada have degenerated into indecisive and messy bickering, with few decisive blows being landed, as four or five political leaders struggle to make key points.
With that in mind, this week's debates will now feature six-minute sections where two leaders face each other.
"It's a moment when all the filters fall away, all the attack ads fall away ... and it's me and Mr. Harper in front of the Canadian people," Ignatieff said.
The Liberal leader -- who says a series of ethical problems means Harper cannot be trusted -- will most likely focus on a draft auditor's report that said the government misled Parliament over spending plans last year.
The Conservatives say later versions of the report contain no such findings. Conservative government minister John Baird told reporters that "Not a single penny is missing."
Alexandre Sevigny, an associate professor of communication studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said Harper simply needs to avoid making mistakes.
"The prime minister would, I think, very much like for it to be a bore and a kind of nonevent and continue coasting on his (polling) numbers, which have been pretty unwavering up to now," he told Reuters.
The Conservatives have support levels around 40 percent in recent Canadian opinion polls, compared with around 30 percent for the Liberals. Under Canada's voting system, that might be enough to guarantee a Conservative majority government that does not need support from other parties to stay in power.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Janet Guttsman