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Conservative leader Stephen Harper speaks to supporters while campaigning Sept. 22, 2015 in Winnipeg.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Here's a secret about political photo ops: when a party leader waves farewell before boarding a plane, he's usually waving to no one but the cameras.

But Monday morning, Conservative supporters lined the path to Stephen Harper's campaign plane to wish the leader well ahead of his trip to Toronto and the Munk debate on Canada's foreign policy.

Having Harper running a gauntlet of support was, for the campaign, an effort to visually negate an idea circulating widely ahead of the faceoff: that Canada's foreign policy under his watch is offside with how Canadians see their place in the world.

That's sure to be the key line of attack for Harper's rivals during the event, but one Conservatives often say misses the mark, arguing the world has changed and Canada's attitude has had to change with it.

Still, they acknowledge the way Harper has steered Canadian foreign policy can be polarizing.

"People either hate it, and then they really hate it, or they love it, and then they really love it," said one Conservative strategist who has worked closely with the government on the foreign policy file but isn't authorized to speak publicly about the campaign's tactics.

Indeed, the biggest applause at many of Harper's evening rallies isn't after his jabs at his opponents or his rundown of economic achievements — it's the section where he talks about his staunch support for Israel and Ukraine.

So one of Harper's key tasks Monday night is to keep that applause going until Oct. 19, and he'll try to do that by staying close to his core message of security — economic and physical — being at the heart of his approach to Canada's role in the world.

The fight against ISIL and domestic terrorism are two of the themes the debate will touch on Monday night, areas the Conservatives perceive as strengths for them and weaknesses for their opponents.

Ahead of Monday night's main event, two of Harper's lieutenants were already taking shots at the Liberals and the NDP for their opposition of a government decision to revoke Canadian citizenship from a convicted terrorist.

Foreign policy, however, isn't just about how many trainers Canada sends to the Ukraine or the jets the government chooses to buy.

For the Conservatives, the debates are about leadership and values. Harper's other goal Monday is to show the other parties just don't have what it takes to stand strong on the world stage.

"He has to look like the adult in the room," the strategist said.

But there are other factors at play.

Conservative candidates were reporting getting an earful about his initial response to the photograph of a dead Syrian toddler whose extended family had been trying to come to Canada.

That furor has subsided with the announcements of a matching contributions fund and new rules for refugee applications.

But advisers have been telling Harper to choose his words carefully; while polls have shown Canadians are hearing the Tory message that security must come first when choosing refugees, they're also looking for Canada to have a heart.

"On the political side, he needs to play to female voters who think empathy towards people is part of foreign policy," said the strategist.

While Harper is comfortable with the subject matter, some of his debate prep involved rehearsing responses to pointed and heated attacks in a bid to figure out how to keep his tone measured and his points relevant in his rebuttals.

One of the elements of Monday's debate is foreign aid, an issue Harper is likely to take heat on given cuts to Canada's development spending and a refocusing of the entire aid program in a way critics say is too closely aligned with economic goals.

So expect to hear about Canada's efforts to improve maternal and child health in the developing world and it's status as one of the lead donors to international humanitarian organizations working on the refugee crisis.