HALIFAX, N.S. - Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil is viewing the first televised leaders' debate as the unofficial start of a Nova Scotia election campaign that actually began two weeks ago.
McNeil, NDP Leader Darrell Dexter and Conservative Premier Rodney MacDonald were scheduled to meet Tuesday night in an hour-long debate to be broadcast on CBC-TV.
McNeil believes his party has run a "solid campaign," but sees the 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."
The debate, 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.
"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 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 Dexter and McNeil have countered that the premier's accusation is an attempt to mislead voters.
NDP campaign director Matt Hebb 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.
At dissolution, the Conservatives had 21 seats in the 52-seat legislature. The NDP had 20 and the Liberals nine. One seat was held by an Independent and one seat was vacant.
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.