Leaders prepare in private before crucial debate

How are the leaders preparing for the federal leaders' debate in Calgary on Thursday?

How do the leaders prepare for the big night? With their full attention

Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau will square off in the last federal leaders' English-language debate on Thursday in Calgary. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

The gloves have come off in Calgary — literally — as the three leaders prepare for their debate on the economy tomorrow.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, known for his 2012 boxing match upset victory over then-Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, will spend part of the day sparring to try to get in the right frame of mind for his verbal bout with Brazeau's former boss, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.

But since Trudeau didn't pack his boxing gloves for the campaign tour, he will instead use what boxers call hand wraps.

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"Energy in, energy out," is how one staffer described Trudeau's use of physical exercise to focus the mind. Trudeau also runs, but boxing training is his preferred form of exercise. 

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau poses before he spars at the Paul Brown Boxfit boxing gym. The party would not reveal how Trudeau is preparing for the debate in Calgary. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Like all the campaign teams, the Liberals are anxious that their rivals will learn details of how their leader prepares, what files he studies and who is helping him.

The Liberals won't say whether they are using role players to stand in for the other leaders, although that is common practice.

They are at pains to stress, not surprisingly, that their leader is calm and looking forward to the chance to state his economic case.

Mulcair on the economy

Mulcair has no such quirky routines.

True to his disciplined and methodical style, he will prep in his room at Calgary's Fairmont Palliser Hotel by going over the issues again and again with his closest advisers.

That means role-playing each potential scenario on camera, and then reviewing the tape and dissecting his performance alongside his chief of staff Alain Gaul and his principal secretary Karl Bélanger.

NDP principal secretary Karl Bélanger looks on as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair addresses supporters in B.C. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Gaul was with Mulcair during his days in provincial politics and returned as chief of staff in January. He is the quietest and most retiring member of the campaign tour, but his return to the Mulcair fold coincided with the party's surge in the polls.

One sign of the secrecy surrounding this debate prep is that for the first time in his national tour, Mulcair is staying at a different hotel from the campaign's media entourage, in what seems to be an effort to avoid their prying eyes.

CBC News has learned that the party has flown in native English-speaking members of their team, who are not members of caucus, to stand in for Harper and Trudeau.

Senior campaign adviser Brad Lavigne, who has not been travelling with the leader, arrived in Calgary on Tuesday afternoon.

Lavigne was widely credited with engineering Jack Layton's strong campaign in 2011 and also returned to the party this year after a hiatus at public relations firm Hill & Knowlton.

Unlike Trudeau, who plans a photo op on Thursday, Mulcair plans to use the whole day to prepare for the debate.

The New Democrats know that much of the focus in the debate will be on their promises, and how they are going to pay for them.

Leading in the polls, they have to convince Canadians that their pledge to balance the books while spending billions on new or expanded programs is not a fantasy.

Expect Mulcair to repeat again and again that the NDP is the only party to produce a fully costed budget plan before this debate.

The NDP also knows it must assuage concerns within its own base that Mulcair's zero-deficit approach will constrain the party's ability to advance a progressive agenda.

The party is extremely sensitive to any suggestion that Mulcair's platform is less progressive then the Liberal plan.

In recent days, he has been emphasizing the point that progressive policies based on debt are not sustainable.

If there is one phrase that Mulcair can be counted on to repeat in this debate, it is "long-term." 

Harper clears his schedule

Harper had no planned campaign events on Wednesday or Thursday, committing his time to debate prep. 

Conservative Jason Kenney slagged the NDP plan to hike corporate taxes, saying it would result in layoffs of thousands. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Instead, the Conservative campaign sent out Defence Minister Jason Kenney Wednesday to slag the NDP's fiscal platform and warn that the party's plan to raise the corporate tax rate to 17 per cent from 15 per cent would result in the loss of some 150,000 jobs

The campaign offered no comment on how Harper was preparing for the debate. 


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