The acknowledged front-runner, McNeil has been the subject of ads by the governing New Democrats over the summer that cast doubt on his ability to lead the province.
A video on YouTube labelled McNeil as "not worth the risk" while highlighting several verbal gaffes and contradictions. That video followed a television attack ad that ran in the spring that showed McNeil's face fading to black as a large question mark emerged from the background.
After a rough and rancorous spring legislative session, some political observers think this could be a sign of things to come as the incumbent New Democrats fight for their political life.
Factor in the potential effects of new media platforms such as Twitter and the fact all three leaders have something at stake in the outcome, then the recipe is in place for a negative campaign, said Lori Turnbull, a political scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
"I think because there is not a huge ideological difference between the three parties the campaign will get pretty negative," said Turnbull.
She said she expects that negativity to spill over at the leadership level as opposed to individual ridings, where local issues tend to be the main focus.
Turnbull believes that's partly because McNeil, Premier Darrell Dexter of the New Democrats, and Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie are "up against it" as the campaign kicks off.
"They are all at a point where they are going to have to do something impressive or their parties are going to have to be talking about somebody else," Turnbull said.
Jeff MacLeod of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax agrees that at the very least, Dexter and McNeil could be in their party's crosshairs after Oct. 8.
"I think the two main leaders, McNeil and Dexter, have their jobs on the line, frankly, depending of course on the outcome," said MacLeod.
He said there's also a scenario where first time campaigner Baillie could be in trouble.
"If he's seen as doing a poor job or has a poor performance in this campaign then even his job could be in jeopardy."
Barbara Emodi, a communications professor at Halifax's Mount Saint Vincent University, also said the campaign could get "pretty nasty" after months of negative advertising and a house session she said got "personal and unprofessional."
The abrasive session ended with police bringing an assault charge against Percy Paris, who was economic development minister at the time, following a confrontation with Liberal Keith Colwell in a washroom next to the legislative chamber. The courts have sent the case through an adult diversion program and have set the matter over to late October.
"I think there are just a lot of cranky people because expectations haven't been met," Emodi said.
Emodi, a former caucus communications director for the NDP, also pointed to the YouTube ad against McNeil as an example of how personal the attacks could get during the election.
All sides have also launched verbal attacks on Twitter, a medium Emodi said is suited to aggressive tactics because of its brevity.
"People are playing to the short clip and to a personal attack ... and it's so much easier to just shortcut to personalities," she said.
But Doug Brown, an associate professor of political science at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., said although he believes the campaign will he hard fought, it won't be "unduly dirty."
He said issues such as power rates, economic development and financial management will likely end up being more important.
Brown also said while there may have been lessons learned from the recent election in British Columbia — where the incumbent Liberals won in part through attacking the NDP's plan for the economy — they don't necessarily translate to the Nova Scotia context.
"The B.C. situation was somewhat unique," said Brown, adding that Nova Scotia elections usually boil down to prominent local issues in a number of key ridings.
"It's going to be a combination of local races, I think, in the end, and the people will make a general judgment about the NDP's overall ability to govern," he said.
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