TORONTO - The in-person showdown that will be Tuesday's televised party leaders debate could prove the tipping point as Ontario heads into the final stretch of a closely contested election campaign.
With voting day Oct. 6 little more than a week away, polls put both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives in minority government territory, potentially making the New Democrats post-election king makers.
Henry Jacek, professor of political science at McMaster University, said the closer the debate is to the election date, the more impact it can have.
"This one, being so late in the campaign, has the potential of really having a big influence," Jacek said.
"Whoever has momentum in the days coming out of this debate, it's going to be hard for the others to turn it around — they just don't have the time."
The debate offers voters their only chance to see the leaders of the Liberals, Tories and New Democrats at the same time, and speaking in sentences as opposed to short sound bites on radio and TV newscasts.
"It's one of those very rare opportunities during the course of a campaign where we can debate provincewide issues together in front of a large Ontario audience," Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty said Monday. "I look forward to getting the opportunity to compare our positive, forward-looking plan to the plans put forward by the other two."
Jacek is predicting that McGuinty, with three previous leader debates under his belt, will find it easy to stay on message, but that Tory Leader Tim Hudak, in his first debate, could have a tougher time.
"Tim can't lose his cool and become very negative," Jacek said.
"Because it's his first time around, he can get into that type of trap where, instead of looking like the premier and being positive, he launches into an opposition leader's attack on the government."
Tory insiders know there's a lot riding on the debate, and that an experienced McGuinty has the edge.
Their aim, they say, is to showcase a Tim Hudak who looks and sounds like a premier.
"We're hoping to do OK in the debate but ... this is McGuinty’s fourth debate and truthfully, we're hoping to survive," said one PC strategist who did not want to be identified.
"We want to get through it and introduce Tim in a positive way."
Preparation includes mock debates against stand-ins for their rivals, although who portrays whom is a closely guarded secret — at least until after election day.
"Everyday is a little bit of practice, I look forward to it," Hudak said during a campaign stop Monday.
"I'll be there to give it my all to talk about our vision of a better, brighter future for the province of Ontario," he added.
Jacek said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, also in her first debate, needs Hudak and McGuinty to start fighting so she can highlight her positive attitude, which really appeals to younger voters turned off by the mud slinging.
"She needs the two of them to really start going at it, and she can step back and say, 'That’s why we need real change'," he said.
"If they act like premiers and are fairly positive, she won’t have a chance to make that kind of argument."
Canadians are not known for their great historical debates _ and pollsters say most voters insist debates usually do not change their minds _ yet the square-off has become a focal point of campaigns.
The late Jack Layton scored points with sharp jabs at both Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper during their debates for the May federal election, and it certainly appeared to help the NDP on election day.
Conservative Brian Mulroney had one of the best performances in a modern Canadian debate in 1984 when Liberal prime minister John Turner said he had "no option" but to proceed with patronage appointments suggested by his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau.
"You had an option, sir. You could have said, 'I am not going to do it'," Mulroney snapped at Turner. "You had an option, sir – to say 'No' – and you chose to say 'Yes'."
Such dramatic moments are rare in political debates, the formats of which are the subject of intense negotiations between the television networks and the political parties and often lead to flat, predictable swapping of talking points with very few sparks to interest voters.
However, anyone who has watched the grainy black and white footage of the 1960 debates between a jowly Richard Nixon and a youthful John F. Kennedy can see in a few seconds how powerful an impact the image alone can have with viewers, and voters.
Usually, it's the governing party that wants the fewest debates, and the Ontario campaign has been no exception.
McGuinty refused to participate in a leaders debate in Thunder Bay, Ont., last week. Hudak and Horwath went ahead without him.
Horwath had also proposed a series of at least three debates, but neither she nor Hudak were prepared to have one in French with the bilingual McGuinty.