MONTREAL — Twice now during the federal election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau brought photographers and television cameras with him to a boxing ring before a leaders debate.
The symbolism of the boxing match for Trudeau is unmistakable and Wednesday's photo opportunity before Thursday night's French-language debate in Montreal had an extra layer of meaning.
With a steely stare, Trudeau sparred with Ali Nestor, the owner of the martial arts gym in Montreal's north end and the man who trained Trudeau before he trounced Sen. Patrick Brazeau in a 2012 charity fight.
Trudeau was considered the underdog and was laughed at repeatedly by Conservative pundits who called him a "shiny pony" who had no chance against the senator with martial arts training.
But after beating Brazeau in the third round, Trudeau went on to win the Liberal leadership race and is now a serious contender to be prime minister.
Due to the presence Thursday night of Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe — who will certainly focus his attacks on themes central to Quebec voters — and the fact the debate is in French, Trudeau can once again be considered an underdog.
He is stronger in French than Harper, but not as agile as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and nowhere near as experienced as Duceppe.
The Liberals in Quebec are also polling significantly behind the NDP, the defending champs and main contenders for supremacy of the province's 78 ridings.
The NDP won 59 seats in 2011, when Quebec had 75 electoral districts, while the Liberals were relegated to seven.
Trudeau will also be shadow-boxing against a major adversary his opponents don't have — his last name.
"The name Trudeau carries a history in Quebec," said Mireille Paquet, assistant professor in political science at Concordia University. "There are a lot of memories. Trudeau isn't going in there with a blank slate."
Quebecers remember his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who pushed through the repatriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982 without Quebec's signature.
Paquet said Trudeau's strategy will likely be to hold the momentum his party has created so far in the election campaign and not take too many risks.
He won't be the main target on Thursday, but will likely focus his jabs at Mulcair and try to position the Liberals as the true progressive alternative to the NDP, Paquet said.
The Liberals are mainly competitive in the ridings in and around the Montreal area and the NDP is their main adversary.
Trudeau will likely be attacked by the Bloc and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper for supporting the right of people to wear face veils during citizenship ceremonies, a position that is not popular in the province.
The Liberal leader is vague on the pipeline that TransCanada wants to construct to bring crude from Alberta through Quebec to be shipped overseas. Trudeau says he isn't for or against it, but wants what he says is a credible environmental review before making up his mind.
Duceppe has seized on Quebec's concerns about the project, which he says bring no benefit to the province, only risk.
During the last two debates Trudeau emerged as a scrapper who often interrupted his opponents — even the moderator.
It remains to be seen if he'll take the same kind of approach Thursday.
Trudeau, however, might have hinted a bit Wednesday on his strategy when giving pointers to a group of students at Nestor's gym.
"People always think that in boxing it's all about getting that one big hit and ending the fight — that's not it," Trudeau told the students.
"It's about taking your time, imposing yourself with jabs and following your rhythm and game plan."
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