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The Insiders: What's at stake in the debate

We're now T-minus one day to the first leaders' debate of the campaign. Some of us are counting down the hours until our first chance to see Harper, Ignatieff, Layton and Duceppe square off against one another. Others are just trying to figure out ways to get the debate moved so it doesn't interfere with this week's episode of Glee.

For many Canadians, the topic of debate prep likely conjures up visions of President Bartlett on NBC's series The West Wing - staffers asking the hard questions while a nervous and, at times, combative leader preps for two hours that could very well make or break their campaign.

The truth is what you see on television is very similar to what goes on behind closed doors in the days leading up to the debate. Leaders are locked in a hotel room with their nearest and dearest - their most trusted advisors. These advisors know not only the leader inside and out, but also the competition. No one wants any surprises on debate night. 

These advisors are experts on toeing the fine line between prepared and authentic - it is vital that a leader not over prepare for the debate as they will inevitably sound robotic, inauthentic or scripted. Think Sarah Palin in the Vice Presidential debate. The leader needs to get across their messaging, but it's key this be done in an authentic way or else the already-skeptical Canadian public won't be buying what they're selling.

Each leader is being prepped to play a different role tomorrow night. If Harper is Coke, Iggy is prepping to be Pepsi and Layton to be Sprite - the "uncola." 

In all seriousness, of all the leaders, tomorrow night is most important for Michael Ignatieff. This is the first time all eyes will be on him. Canadians want to know if this guy can be our new Prime Minister, and this is his chance to show them that yes, he is ready. He has to come across as a strong leader, but also likeable, friendly and relaxed. And even more than that, he needs to use the debates to shine light on what he and the Liberals have on offer.

While Iggy will have been coached on how to come across while attacking his opponent, Harper's challenge will be to come across as factual and statesmanlike. He must be restrained, the voice of reason - no outlandish promises in the heat of the moment because, at the close of the debate, he is still the Prime Minister. He must be measured in his responses, but also upbeat and authentic.
Layton's team will be prepping him to rise above the fray and dispel any myths he's the "weak sibling." His greatest strength, something that we'll undoubtedly see tomorrow night, is delivering one liners and sound bites. Many observers have said this is now a two horse race. Layton's job will be to prove them wrong. To do so, he'll have to fight for his media coverage. His challenge will be to come up with a sound bite tomorrow night that will capture a headline.