You can often tell who is winning and who is losing an election through a candidate's willingness to debate.

The rule of thumb is that the frontrunner wants to reduce these head-to-head confrontations as a form of risk mitigation. The more debates you have, the more you expose yourself to political injury from your opponent.

The smart play is to avoid these confrontations as much as reasonably possible and play it safe. For candidates who are ahead, debates are all about risk.

For candidates who are behind, debates are all about opportunity.

It is a chance to be on equal ground with the frontrunner, a chance to share the stage and the TV time in a direct confrontation with your opponents, to present an unfiltered argument to the voting public. In rare cases, a politician might even be able to score that mythical "knockout punch."

Progressive Conservative leader Kathy Dunderdale is following a strategy of risk mitigation. She will participate in just one debate during this election.

Dunderdale, Liberal Leader Kevin Aylward and NDP Leader Lorraine Michael will have their only face-to-face confrontation on Wednesday night, when they meet in the house of assembly for the televised leaders' debate.

Aylward and Michael clearly wanted more than one chance to debate Dunderdale. They both agreed to participate Tuesday morning in a health care debate hosted by the Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses' Union. Jerome Kennedy will be Dunderdale's proxy.

Board of Trade debate

Similarly, Michael and Aylward both agreed to participate Tuesday night in the St. John's Board of Trade economic debate (moderated by yours truly).

But — at the last minute — Aylward pulled out. The problem appears to be Dunderdale's lack of participation. Tom Marshall is the PC representative in the debate. Aylward's people have let it be known that he wants to debate Dunderdale or nobody. Danny Dumaresque, the Liberal candidate for the Isles of Notre Dame, will take his place.

My sense is that if Aylward wasn’t going to get his chance to go one-on-one with Dunderdale on economic and fiscal policy, he wasn't going to give Michael a chance to go one-on-one with him. That dynamic offers all risk, with little reward.

Aylward's last minute refusal to participate in a debate that doesn't include all three leaders can be viewed as an attempt to draw a distinction between him and Michael.

The polls put the NDP ahead of the Liberals. But the Liberals still enjoyed official Opposition status and had four seats to the NDP's one at dissolution. Aylward is the leader of a party that held government from 1949-1972 and again from 1989-2003.

Michael leads a party with a high-water mark of two seats in the house of assembly. In the Liberal view, if Dunderdale will dispatch proxies to face Aylward, then it should be fine for Aylward to dispatch proxies to face Michael. It is a form of risk mitigation for a party whose traditional spot in the Newfoundland and Labrador political power structure is under threat.

For her part, Dunderdale says she has scheduling conflicts and that's why she can only participate in one debate. She has been spending the early part of this week on the west coast campaigning before speaking to a student leadership conference and heading back to St. John's to prepare for the big televised debate on Wednesday night.

That debate will last just one hour, with time split equally among all three leaders. That doesn't give Dunderdale a lot of time on screen.

And — as the clear frontrunner in this campaign — that may be exactly what the Conservatives want.