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Leaders hoping to avoid costly gaffes during Nova Scotia election debate

HALIFAX - Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil, the perceived front-runner in what has become a tame and uneventful Nova Scotia election race, is aiming low as he prepares for the campaign's televised leaders debate Wednesday.

McNeil says his goal is to deliver his key messages and, more importantly, avoid making any cringe-worthy gaffes.

"I don't think anyone can hit a home run to win," says McNeil, former owner of a small business in the Annapolis Valley. "It's if someone makes a mistake — that's what ends up being the issue. It's usually when someone falters that you see the biggest change."

In Nova Scotia, history shows that faltering in a debate can have disastrous consequences.

The televised debate during the 1998 campaign produced the infamous Seven Seconds of Silence, marking a turning point in a race that saw the governing Liberals barely retain power.

Then Liberal premier Russell MacLellan stumbled badly when asked by Progressive Conservative Leader John Hamm if the premier would resign if he failed to bring in a balanced budget. Instead of responding, MacLellan stared straight ahead and uttered not a word for seven, long seconds.

The awkward pause, which MacLellan later blamed on rigid debate rules, has become a cautionary tale for Nova Scotia's typically low-key politicians, says Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University in Sydney.

"Caution is not just a political calculation, it's part of the nature of ... our politics in this province," he says.

So it's not surprising that the campaign for the Oct. 8 election has been a dull affair so far, which does not bode well for the debate, he says.

"This has been a campaign that has been extraordinarily cautious — remarkably so," Urbaniak says, adding that the leaders trailing McNeil in the polls — NDP Premier Darrell Dexter and Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie — haven't offered any bold new ideas to capture the public's imagination.

"All indicators are that, given the tenor of the campaign, the leaders will try to be their cautious best in the debate."

McNeil's approach is a typical front-runner strategy, says Doug Anderson, senior vice-president of public affairs at Harris-Decima, a public opinion and market research firm.

"There are clear strategies that have been developed over the years," he says. "If you are the leading candidate, then you try to run a safe debate. You try to not do anything to erode the lead that you have."

That means the challenge for Dexter and Baillie is to score points at McNeil's expense, he says.

"That's difficult to do at the best of times," says Anderson. "Lots of times you go into these debates and the candidates have spent a considerable amount of time honing their messages and trying to anticipate what weaknesses their opponent might try to expose."

Dexter says he's not about to take any chances in the debate.

"It's more risk than reward," he says. "I don't think anybody goes in thinking we're just going to throw caution to the wind. Of course, you're going to guard against making a mistake."

Still, Dexter says that as the most seasoned leader — he's led his party for 12 years — he's looking forward to the challenge.

"It's one of the few opportunities that I get to actually, in a face-to-face format, push back against my opponents," says the former lawyer and journalist. "For the most part, they get to fire on me from 1,000 yards away and it's difficult for me to push back."

As for Baillie, he says he plans to focus his attention on McNeil, having concluded the NDP has no chance of winning the election.

"For many of the Nova Scotians I've heard from, they are holding back, undecided, until they see the (Liberal and Tory) leaders in the debates," says Baillie, a chartered accountant and former president of Credit Union Atlantic.

Baillie, acclaimed as Tory leader in 2010, admits that the debate will offer many Nova Scotians their first glimpse of him in action.

"I want them to kick the tires and get to know me," he says.

— With files from Keith Doucette

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