Setting the scene for Thursday's debate

Edmonton — The Globe and Mail

Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason speaks to reporters about the resignation of provincial Liberal leader David Swann, at the Alberta Legislature, in Edmonton, on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press/John Ulan/The Canadian Press)

The positioning for the Alberta election leaders’ debate has been sorted out, putting New Democrat Brian Mason in unexplored territory – the far right.

Mr. Mason will appear on the audience’s right, followed by Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, Progressive Conservative leader Alison Redford and Liberal leader Raj Sherman, who will round out the debate and appear on the audience’s left, according to an outline sent to political parties.

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The podium position was determined by a draw.

The debate is expected to be a pivotal point in the campaign. With a strong performance that appeals to a broad base of voters, Ms. Smith would all but guarantee victory for her Wildrose Party, which is leading in the polls. Ms. Redford, meanwhile, won her party’s leadership last fall largely on the strength of her debate performance, and staff have said she’s anxious for the evening debate as an opportunity to catch up to Wildrose.

The debate is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. local time Thursday – 11 days before election day – and will last for 90 minutes. It will be held at Global Television’s studio in Edmonton.

The speaking order for opening and closing statements was also determined by draw. Ms. Redford will begin, followed by Dr. Sherman, Ms. Smith and Mr. Mason. Closing statements will be done in the opposite order, thereby ending with Ms. Redford.

The format will see a question directed at one person, who will have 45 seconds to respond, then each other candidate will have 30 seconds to comment on the subject. Afterwards, brief one-on-one debates will roll out – not until the sixth question will Ms. Redford and Ms. Smith, the two most likely to be premier, square off directly.

The panelists questioning the leaders include reporters from Global, CTV, CBC and the Edmonton Journal. Two moderators will also run the debate.

The leader of the upstart Alberta Party, Glenn Taylor, wasn’t invited to participate. The party is cast as a centrist alternative, and in the previous legislature had one MLA who was elected as a Liberal but isn’t running again.

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