The federal party leaders are off the hustings Wednesday, preparing for the French-language debate that is widely expected to focus on Quebecers and the issues that will affect their vote.

They will be debating in French beginning Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET.

The leaders' English debate was held Tuesday night -- a debate that many political observers say produced few hard-hitting blows and no clear winner.

Antonia Maioni, the director of the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University in Montreal, said the French-language debate will really be about Quebec, where many ridings are still up for grabs.

"In many of the ridings in Quebec now, it's a four-way race. And so (Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles) Deceppe will be trying to hold his ground against the other three," she told CTV News Channel Wednesday.

While Duceppe will have the advantage, both in language and in up-to-date knowledge of the issues that concern Quebecers, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, and NDP Leader Jack Layton have plenty at stake as well, Maioni says.

"Mr. Ignatieff still has to perform, Mr. Harper has to stay solid on the issues because he doesn't want to lose any seats in Quebec. And Mr. Layton, who is hoping for a breakthrough in Quebec, is going to have to be as good as he was last night or even better," she said.

Tuesday night's debate was marked by the three opposition leaders squaring off against Harper, taking him to task on issues such as democracy, transparency and government spending, with the prime minister remaining cool while on defence.

While there was no clear winner, there were no major missteps either, and the leaders seemed satisfied with their performances when they spoke to reporters afterwards. However, each of the leaders was careful not to claim to have won the debate.

Harper, whose goal was to promote his record in office and focus on his key platform issues such as low taxation and job creation, said "I feel good about how we did in the debate."

Ignatieff said he felt he was able to explain why he helped triggered the election and to take Harper to task on democracy. He said he hoped he presented himself as a viable alternative.

Layton, who spent much of the debate describing Harper and Ignatieff as having much in common, said afterwards he felt he had distinguished himself as sufficiently different.

Duceppe complained that he didn't get answers from Harper on questions about the full cost of F-35 fighter jets.

Jane Taber, co-host of CTV's Question Period, said none of the leaders seemed to her to get a knockout-punch moment, though it will be two or three days before polls reveal whether any of the leaders gained major ground from their performance.

However, she said it was clear that Harper held up well under pressure.

"For the Conservative Leader Stephen Harper to be ganged up on by the three opposition leader and to keep his cool the way he did but make his points as well, I think he did a good job," Taber told CTV's Canada AM.

However, what's most important for all the leaders, Taber said, is that there was no clear loser, and "nobody took a big hit."

Maioni agreed that Harper remained "remarkably calm" during the attacks, while Ignatieff "came out quite statesman-like" in some areas, she said.

"He was good on the governance issues. But he really didn't hand in any sucker punches to anybody," she said, noting that the Liberal leader was fighting a war on two fronts: going after Harper, while defending himself from attacks from Layton.

"Jack Layton, I though, was very effective: very good, engaging everyone. Gilles Duceppe, while he has done better in other debates, stood his ground on Quebec issues."

She said what she enjoyed most about the debates was that it allowed the leaders to actually speak clearly about their policy positions on the economy, crime and the controversy over the planned purchase of F-35 jets.

Poll numbers

Pollster Nik Nanos says it will be the end of the week before the debates show any clear impact on the polls.

The latest Nanos poll continues to show the Conservatives well out in front: (rolling three day poll taken April 10-12)

  • Conservatives: 39.9 per cent
  • Liberals: 30.4 per cent
  • NDP: 16.3 per cent
  • Bloc Quebecois: 9.1 per cent
  • Greens: 3.8 per cent

In Quebec, support for the Bloc Quebecois has risen to 38.6 per cent, followed by the Tories at 23.1 per cent, the NDP at 17.9 and the Liberals at 16 per cent.

"We've actually seen the Liberal numbers trend down in Quebec over the last couple days," Nanos told CTV's Power Play. "The Bloc are where they were in the last election, the Conservatives are (as well) but the NDP is doing better now than they were in the last election."

The Conservatives and the Liberals remain statistically tied in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. The Tories lead in the Prairies and B.C.

Methodology: Random telephone sample of 989 Decided Canadians, April 10-12, accurate 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20