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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair speaks to supporters during a campaign stop on Mount Royal Tuesday, August 4, 2015 in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has been waging mock debates, squaring off against fake opponents to prepare for the federal election campaign's first leaders' debate, which will test his ability to connect with Canadians as a would-be prime minister.

Known as Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's "lead prosecutor" in the House, Mr. Mulcair is studying videotapes of the preparatory sessions to hone his skills for his first such confrontation.

He has taken the matter seriously, interrupting rehearsals for a single partisan rally in Montreal on Tuesday, and spending the rest of the election campaign, so far, outside the public's view.

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NDP officials declined to say who was playing the parts of Mr. Harper, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau or Green Leader Elizabeth May in the simulated exchanges.

Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, both novices in leaders' debates, will be up against the experienced Mr. Harper, who has participated in at least two debates in every election going back to 2004.

And the encounters this time will be unlike anything Canadians have been accustomed to – both in terms of quantity and format. The traditional debates on Canada's major television networks, an election staple for decades, are unlikely to be held: Mr. Harper has refused to participate, and Mr. Mulcair will not appear without him.

Nonetheless, experts say the first of at least four debates this year, to be hosted on Thursday by Maclean's magazine in collaboration with other media partners, will set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

"You may not have huge numbers watching it but, of course, it is going to be rebroadcast and it's going to find its way into news clippings and onto the TV stations," said Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University.

"And that's how a lot of people will hear about it."

It usually takes a full week for the effects of a debate – both the hard-hitting lines and the verbal pratfalls – to be realized, said Dr. Jacek. They filter through many layers of the public consciousness, he said, from the people who are most interested and most knowledgeable, to media pundits, and then to Canadians who did not actually tune in but develop perceptions based on the reaction of others.

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The Maclean's debate will deal with a variety of issues, including the economy and the environment, foreign affairs and the future of democratic institutions. But the party leaders will try to sell their main message to the audience, regardless of the questions.

Mr. Harper is depicting his rivals as risky and inexperienced, while Mr. Mulcair wants to portray the election as a two-way race between the NDP and the Conservatives. Mr. Trudeau wants to emphasize his plan to hike taxes on the rich and offer increased benefits to most families with children.

"His focus is going to be speaking directly to Canadians about his plan for the economy," Liberal spokeswoman Kate Purchase said in an e-mail.

The Conservative Leader, after making an announcement in Toronto on Tuesday morning, spent much of the rest of the day in closed-door rehearsals for Thursday's debate.

Dr. Jacek said Mr. Harper's biggest challenge will be to persuade voters that they still need him.

"He's got to counter what I would call voter fatigue," he said. "After eight or nine years, even if you are really good, people want a change."

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Ms. May, who has only been invited to the 2008 election debates, said she can't imagine anything more embarrassing or useless than practice sessions.

"I prepare for debates by studying, just like I was going to take an exam," she said. "This is one of the things Canadians don't like about politicians – when they can see that they have been scripted, groomed and practised."

The Green Leader said her main goal will be to demonstrate that even a handful of Green MPs could make the difference between a short and corrosive minority Parliament and one that works co-operatively to get things done.

As the long campaign winds down, The Globe will be holding a debate on economic issues between Mr. Harper, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau on Sept. 17. The Munk Debates is planning a debate on foreign policy, and French network TVA will feature a series of one-on-one debates between party leaders on Oct. 5.

Speaking at a rally on Tuesday, Mr. Mulcair said the NDP had been the Conservative Party's "worst nightmare" in the House of Commons, especially over the government's anti-terrorism legislation.

"We stood up to him on scandal and corruption, his failed economic plan, and most notably on Bill C-51. We stood up, we fought," Mr. Mulcair said.

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Dr. Jacek said the NDP Leader must avoid mistakes at all costs. "He is going to want to convince people he can manage the economy better than Harper, and certainly better than Trudeau," he said.

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