HALIFAX, N.S. - Political analysts are predicting Tuesday's televised leaders debate in Nova Scotia could be the true kickoff for what has so far been a cautious election campaign.

The debates - Tuesday's is the first of three times the leaders will get together face-to-face before the June 9 election - could prove critical for the leaders in the 35-day campaign.

"A series of debates where one leader clearly surprises and impresses voters can make a difference," said Michael Robinson, an Ottawa lobbyist who had helped in debate preparations for Liberal prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

Robinson believes while debates rarely provide moments that produce clear-cut winners, they do come with the potential to hurt campaigns if a party leader is seen as falling short of expectations.

He said for campaign advisers it's often a case of producing a performance from a leader that is "relative to how people expect them to perform."

"A big part of the politics gamesmanship of debates is to try to reduce expectations of your particular candidate and hope they exceed them on the night of the debate," he said. "And people tend to change their impressions based on their expectations."

To date, the biggest issue of the election has been the economy and the fact the government still hasn't passed a budget to deal with the recession.

Recriminations have flown back and forth about who's to blame, with Premier Rodney MacDonald slamming the opposition NDP and Liberals for forcing an election and holding up his minority government's three-year $1.9 billion stimulus package.

Both NDP Leader Darrell Dexter and Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil have countered that the premier's accusation is an attempt to mislead voters.

That cry grew louder last week after the Tory government gave itself special authorization to free up $130 million in spending for paving and building projects and conceded that it had run out of cash on April 30, the day the legislature convened for its spring sitting.

NDP campaign director Matt Hebb said the whole question of the government's management of the books is something his party believes has resonance.

He said that's a large part of the reason why the NDP thought it was important to offer an alternative and get its platform containing $79 million in new promises out early in the campaign.

Hebb hinted at a possible theme Dexter is likely to stress during the debate.

"I think that whole question of a time for a change is very much out there ... and once an election is underway people actually really start to think about the choice before them," he said.

Hebb said he expects the other two leaders will come at Dexter hard during the debate, an assertion backed up over the weekend when the Tories called a news conference to again attack the NDP platform.

Michael MacMillan, a political scientist at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, also believes the NDP will be the target, adding the other leaders will try to undermine the perception of Dexter's leadership qualities while trying to reinforce their own.

He points to polls over the last year that place Dexter as Nova Scotians preferred choice as leader.

"Dexter has the concern to consolidate that lead and to reinforce it," he said.

For the third-place Liberals, who are trying to recover from their worst ever election showing in 2006, it's a chance to showcase the still relatively unknown McNeil, who has been at the helm for just over two years.

McNeil believes the party has run a "solid campaign," but sees Tuesday's debate as the time when voters will actually pay attention in ways they haven't before.

"It will really be the unofficial start of the campaign in many ways for Nova Scotians following the long weekend," he said. "There's no question this debate will be, in many ways, a first time for me to introduce myself."

Debate expert Robinson said a relative unknown like McNeil can derive an advantage over established candidates because of the opportunity to make a good first impression.

But for all candidates, he said, it's a matter of "playing to your strengths and trying to minimize your weaknesses."

"If somebody's really got their persona deeply entrenched with the electorate the debate really isn't going to change very much," he added.

Robinson also cautions that debates in general don't always end up being as important as many people think.

"You try to find where you think there is an opportunity to make an impression, where there's an opportunity to get a headline, where there's an opportunity to score points," said Robinson. "But I think it's a mistake for leaders to go into a debate thinking there's a knockout punch."



Tuesday's hour-long debate from Halifax will air on CBC television at 7 p.m. AT.

A second debate will be held June 2 in Baddeck and the leaders will take part in a roundtable discussion on CTV on June 4.

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