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Michael Ignatieff: Canadian candidate struggles to prove his Canadianness

Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party candidate in Canada's May 2 election, lags far behind in the polls. His main problem: He spent too much time south of the border.

By Anita ElashCorrespondent / April 17, 2011

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff greets supporters at a Liberal rally in Edmonton, Saturday.

Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters

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Hamilton, Canada

For a man who has spent most of his adult life traveling the inner circles of British and American intelligentsia, Michael Ignatieff seems remarkably comfortable with the working class crowd that has gathered in a renovated train station in Canada’s steel manufacturing capital to meet him.

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With the obligatory handshaking and baby-kissing out of the way, Canada's Liberal Party leader takes his place at the front of the room, tucks his open-collar shirt loosely into his pants, and walks the audience through his party’s platform, emphasizing middle class concerns such as education and money to care for elderly parents at home. Then he allows his patrician face to broaden into a smile and brings the house down with a child’s political joke about why the chicken crossed the road.

“He did it to avoid a debate,” Mr. Ignatieff says, taking a swipe at sitting Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to meet him one-on-one in a televised debate.

Six years after leaving his post as the influential and respected head of Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights, Canadian-born Ignatieff is finally getting a chance at the job he came home for – he is running to become Canada’s next prime minister.

But for all his ease in front of party supporters in places like Hamilton, Ignatieff is a long way from convincing Canadians his impeccable international credentials qualify him to lead the country. And he doesn't have much more time to make his case as Canadians vote on May 2.

'The United States way of thinking'

Dennis McLaren, a retired steelworker who came to the rally to protest the low level of his pension benefits, expresses a widespread view of the Liberal leader.

“He’s a carpetbagger. He drops from state to state. He’s come up from Harvard and Princeton, and now he’s up here in Canada. He’s been out of the country for 30 years and now he’s up here in Canada because he’s fed up with being a professor down there,” he said. “And what is he going to do for the country? Who knows. Maybe 30 years away is too long. Maybe he’s got the United States way of thinking.”

Polls reflect that sentiment. They show that although Ignatieff’s centrist Liberal Party, ranks second in popularity, just 10 points behind the governing center-right Conservatives, he sits a distant third in a ranking of candidates’ trustworthiness and leadership skills.

Mr. Harper is widely criticized for his autocratic nature and is facing serious questions about whether he misled parliament about government spending. But daily voter tracking by Nanos Research gives him an approval rating of 122.8. Jack Layton, who leads a party that is often considered a marginal force in Canadian politics, the socialist National Democratic Party, gets a rating of 57.3. Ignatieff comes in with 52.7 points and has only marginally improved his status since the start of the campaign.

His main problem, says pollster Nik Nanos, is that like the demonstrators outside the Hamilton rally, Canadians see Ignatieff as unpatriotic and suspect his motives for returning to Canada after spending more than 30 years making his name abroad.

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