Alex Cullen can only peg the amount of all-candidates debates he's been in as "dozens" since he ran for a school board position in 1982.

"There were more candidates than there were people in the audience," said the former MPP, former city councillor and current NDP candidate in Ottawa West-Nepean.

Nowadays, all-candidates debates are often one of the focal points of a campaign, whether at the local or provincial level, as is happening tonight with the only leaders debate to feature Andrea Horwath, Tim Hudak and Kathleen Wynne.

Cullen said he's faced off against many people at many levels of government and has his routine down â€” reading the platform and especially focusing on the numbers, trying to anticipate what may be asked but remembering to be ready for anything and getting a good night's sleep the night before.

Alex Cullen, Bob Chiarelli and Randall Denley

NDP candidate Alex Cullen says parties usually have support services to help candidates with debates, if needed. (CBC)

He also identified a few important points for all candidates.

"The audience reacts well to authenticity so you can't fake it, you can't try and dance your way around a subject," he said Monday.

"They prefer a direct answer and they prefer sincerity. If you don't have an answer, [say] that you'll look into the issue and get back to them."

A personal strategy 

"As soon as

[candidates] move out of what's authentic to them, and that's different for each person ... the audience can spot that in a New York minute," said Jaime Watt, a strategist who's helped prepare candidates for debates across a few levels of politics.
Jaime Watt Power and Politics

Jaime Watt is a strategist and frequent contributor to CBC Television's "Power & Politics." (CBC)

Watt said everyone he's worked with has their own strengths and weaknesses their teams have to work around.

"The first thing you have to figure out is what's your starting point and what do you need to achieve. The person in the lead has different things to achieve than the person who's behind, or perhaps you're not getting enough attention in the campaign," he said.

Watt also said leaders will often have party staffers learn the positions and mannerisms of the other candidates to go through mock debates.

Cullen said every NDP candidate in Ontario has party support staff they can contact for help with debates and the other parties have similar set-ups.

Some use canvassing as prep

Ottawa-Vanier PC candidate Martin Forget was in a unique position last week, participating in what he said was his first debate since high school during the provincial Francophone debate.

Martin Forget

Martin Forget, centre, said he learned how to better get his points in after his first all-candidates debate last week. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

"It was kind of like a very cold shower," he said.

"I'm not shy but I'm a person who is particularly modest, so suddenly to be up in front of the cameras knowing I'm on several provincial networks… it humbled me."

Forget said he now knows better how hard it can be to get your points in while other candidates are also trying to make theirs, but his experience has made him better at local debates.

"You have to mentally prepare yourself and say 'OK, I'm here to deliver a message, I'm here to represent the various key points of what we're promoting,' so you have to really erase yourself from knowing what's out there... you have to develop a comfort zone," he said.

hi-ott-yasir-naqvi-852

Yasir Naqvi says he tries to spread debate prep out and not cram at the last minute.

Ottawa-Centre Liberal candidate Yasir Naqvi said he more relies on talking to people at the doorstep and getting to know the issues over the entire campaign than sitting down and studying right before a debate.

"I never cram for exams, you prepare for everything you do in advance and that's what I've been doing," he said.

"I've been working with the community the last seven years and that's what I'll be talking about."

Fellow Liberal candidate John Fraser said he does switch things up slightly the day of a debate by trying not to tire himself out too much while canvassing.


Tonight's debate 

The leaders' debate, hosted by journalist Steve Paikin, begins at 6:30 p.m. ET and runs until 8 p.m. ET. 

  • Watch it live on CBC News Network and CBC Television. 
  • Listen live on CBC Radio One (Ontario only). 
  • Watch livestreaming video online and take part in our live blog at cbc.ca/ontariovotes
  • Get a debate wrap up and analysis on CBC Television News at 11 and online at cbc.ca/ontariovotes.
  • Rate the leaders performance after the debate at cbc.ca/votecompass