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Workers put together the set for the federal election debates in Ottawa on Wednesday and Thursday. The debates will have a different format and the leaders will sit around a table. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

The economy is expected to be the most prominent issue in Wednesday night's French-language leaders' debate amid concerns about the effects of widespread U.S. economic turmoil on Canada.

Federal leaders are taking a break from campaigning for the Oct. 14 election to focus on preparing for the debate, which will feature more time devoted to discussion on the economy after a formal request from Conservative Leader Stephen Harper on Tuesday.

Watch tonight's French-language debate in translation on CBC Newsworld or online at CBCNews.ca from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET.

The debate is also available in French on Radio-Canada and RDI.

The request came on the same day the Liberals accused Harper of plagiarizing a 2003 speech to the Commons from an address made two days earlier by then-Australian prime minister John Howard, a staunch U.S. ally. Harper was urging Canada to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

After initially dismissing the issue as irrelevant, the Conservatives released a statement in which a Tory staffer admitted to being "overzealous in copying segments" of Howard's address. He resigned his current campaign position. Harper has yet to comment on the affair.

Especially important for Duceppe

Wednesday night's debate is being viewed as especially important for Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, who has said he will use it to put Quebec's interests front and centre.

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Liberal supporter Bryn Hendricks holds a mock campaign sign for former Australian prime minister John Howard prior to the French-language federal election debate in Ottawa. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Polls suggest that the Bloc and the Conservatives are neck-and-neck in terms of support in Quebec, although Harper has faced heavy criticism within the province over his government's decision to cut up to $45 million in arts and culture funding.

"The big, big fight is between Gilles Duceppe and Stephen Harper," said the CBC's Julie Van Dusen, who is covering the election from Ottawa.

Wednesday's debate also marks the first of its kind for Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, who has been preparing for the debate on the economy with the help of key aides to former prime minister Paul Martin.

Dion has struggled with low approval ratings in his home province, which many attribute to his battling separatist leaders and championing the federal Clarity Act while he was the intergovernmental affairs minister in the Jean Chrétien government.

May's inclusion a landmark event

Thursday's English-language debate will also feature an extended segment on the economy, said the broadcasting consortium staging the debates.

The consortium has allowed for a 30-minute economic discussion at the start of each debate, after Harper requested that the 12 minutes originally allotted to discuss economic issues be extended to a full hour.

Harper is widely expected to repeat his argument throughout the campaign that the uncertain economic times facing Canada call for keeping his party in power.

"This election is about which party can protect the interests of Canadian families, especially in a period of global economic uncertainty," Harper said Tuesday.

Dion will try to convince voters that Harper's Conservatives are too callous, while the NDP is too willing to spend in tough economic times, said the CBC's Susan Bonner, who is covering the Liberal campaign.

It is also the first leaders' debate for Green Leader Elizabeth May, who won inclusion in the event after a drawn-out battle with the broadcast consortium, which had initially excluded her.

NDP Leader Jack Layton is expected to try to capitalize on a surge in opinion polls by portraying his party as an alternative to the Liberals, said Bonner.

Another change in the debate format will have the leaders sitting at an oval table instead of speaking from a podium.

Do you have a question for Stéphane Dion? Send it to national@cbc.ca for The National's Your Turn with the Liberal party leader on Oct. 8.