5 things to watch in N.S. election debate tonight

The leaders of Nova Scotia's three major political parties will come together Wednesday night on CBC News for the only televised leaders debate of this year's election campaign.

Jamie Baillie, Darrell Dexter and Stephen McNeil to come together for 5:30 p.m. AT debate

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie, left, New Democrat Leader Darrell Dexter, middle, and Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil are set to participate in a televised debate Wednesday night. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The leaders of Nova Scotia's three major political parties will come together Wednesday night on CBC News for the only televised leaders debate of this year's election campaign.

Legislature reporter Paul Withers takes a look at the five things you should watch out for during the debate:

1. How will Stephen McNeil react under pressure?

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil has emerged as the clear front-runner in the province's rather uneventful election campaign. He's been an MLA for a decade and a party leader for six years, but he's never been tested in a moment like this. Expectations during his first debate four years ago were low — now the stakes are much higher.

Will he seal the deal or falter? Watch for McNeil under pressure.

The CBC's Tom Murphy and Amy Smith will spend 90 minutes with the leaders, asking the questions that matter most to voters.

The program starts at 5:30 p.m. on CBC Television.

The first 30 minutes of the debate will be on CBC Radio One.

You can also listen online and join the conversation with legislature reporter Jean Laroche, who will moderate a live chat starting at 5:30 p.m.

McNeil, for his part, is aiming low — he said his goal is to deliver his key messages and avoid making any cringe-worthy gaffes.

"I don't think anyone can hit a home run to win," he said. "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."

2. How aggressive will the rival leaders be?

What will Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie and New Democratic Party Leader Darrell Dexter do to reel McNeil in? Both of them need to cast doubt on the Liberal leader and cause Nova Scotians to take a second look at their parties.

Watch to see how aggressive they get.

Tom Urbaniak, a political science professor at Cape Breton University in Sydney, said it's not surprising the campaign has been a dull affair so far and that doesn't bode well for the debate. He said Baillie and Dexter 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," said Urbaniak.

3. Can Darrell Dexter make you care about his party?

Expect Dexter to challenge McNeil's grasp of so-called big ticket election items such as health care, electricity rates and government assistance to business.

After dishing it out for years as an Opposition leader prior to the New Democratic Party's victory in 2009, Dexter has since become the target of criticism aimed at toppling the ruling party. Dexter has complained about the Liberal Party's "misleading" television advertisements on various aspects of his mandate. Will he call McNeil on them?

More importantly, can Dexter make the case that the New Democratic Party deserves a second mandate?

As the most seasoned leader — Dexter has led his party for 12 years — he said 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," he said. "For the most part, they get to fire on me from 1,000 yards away and it's difficult for me to push back."

4. Can Jamie Baillie convince you the Tories are in the race?

Baillie says Nova Scotians have already answered that question and he's concluded the New Democratic Party doesn't have a chance to win the election. It's a choice between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, he says.

The Progressive Conservatives are betting it all on tax cuts. It's the only party offering "real change" by promising to reduce the Harmonized Sales Tax from 15 per cent to 13 per cent.

That's sure to elicit an attack line from McNeil that the plan amounts to a "Stephen Harper vision" for Nova Scotia. Will the Tory vision survive?

"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," said Baillie.

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 said.

5. Do you know what the parties stand for when it's all over?

What's most important to consider is whether the three leaders get across the main points of their platform. At the very least, you want to know what's on offer ahead of the Oct. 8 election.

With files from The Canadian Press


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