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Steve Paikin, behind the scenes at the election debate

They are the longest and most nerve-racking four minutes of your life.

The four major party leaders were ushered into the debate studio in Ottawa at 6:56 p.m. on Tuesday. The debate started at 7 p.m. What does one do for those four minutes?

The leaders are looking at their notes, their shoes, the walls - anything not to make eye contact with one another. All that is, except Gilles Duceppe. The Bloc Québécois leader knows that, during this debate, he is playing with the house's money.

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In fact, during the walk-through earlier in the day, when the leaders check their podiums, camera positions and wardrobe, Mr. Duceppe was easily the most relaxed.

"Tonight is my 14th debate," he joked. "And tomorrow will be my 15th."

Then he started counting them all, as the rest of us marvelled at how the man who would break up Canada actually has participated in almost as many Canadian leaders' debates as all of his opponents combined.

I've had the honour of moderating two previous federal leaders' debates and, both times, the four minutes of waiting for the top of the clock were agonizing.

It's not an exaggeration to say that in 2006 - the first time I ever participated in a leaders' debate at any level - I felt like vomiting during those four minutes. Yes, I was that petrified.

So I cracked a joke. "I don't know what you guys are so nervous about," I said to them. "You've all done this before. I never have."

For all the criticism that he's wooden and humourless, it was actually then-opposition leader Stephen Harper who had a funny comeback.

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"Yeah," he said, "but you've got someone talking in your ear to help you. We've got nothing."

In 2008, with five leaders at a table rather than on podiums, I did something different to break the tension.

"I didn't do this last time and really regretted it," I told them all. "I want a picture for a souvenir. So smile everyone."

And smile they did. Very nervous smiles. But it passed some time and got us through those four minutes.

What did I do this year? Well, as it happened, my mother turned 75 the day after the debate. So I pulled out my video camera, and asked them to say happy birthday to her. They politely obliged.

I think that helped ease some of the tension. (And yes, Mom loved the video.)

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This year, for the first time ever, there was a VIP audience in the studio. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff wanted his wife, Zsuzsanna, front-row centre, right in his eye line. I thought it was sweet that one of this country's most skilled debaters wanted the security of seeing a loved one close by. Then I remembered: He had never done this before. Not at this level.

The executive producer, Mark Bulgutch, addressed the crowd before the leaders paraded in. "We've been doing technical rehearsals all afternoon," he said, "and the sound carries very easily. The leaders will hear everything you say, so please: cellphones off, no booing, no shouting, no heckling and no clapping. Having said that, you can be human. If someone says something funny, you're allowed to laugh. Got it?"

Yes. You could hear a pin drop.

Being a few sword lengths away from the leaders, rather than watching the spectacle on television, gives the moderator a completely different experience from the viewing public.

I'm often asked, "Who do you think won the debate?" The truth is I never can tell. There's too much going on.

You're getting counts in your ear on how much time is left in each segment. You're listening carefully in case any personal attacks require equal time for a response. You're looking ahead to note who is matched up in the next segment. You're making eye contact with the leaders to indicate who gets to speak next. And the executive producer is frequently in your ear, noting who needs more time.

The one criticism Mark is very sensitive to (and appropriately so) is that one leader may get more air time than another. The parties are always looking for signs that one side is being favoured. So someone actually runs a stopwatch, tracking how much speaking time each leader takes.

After a couple of questions, Mark told me: "You need to get Layton into this segment more." So I did. Because all the early action was directed toward Mr. Harper, the Conservative leader had taken a disproportionate amount of air time. At one point, I had to cut him off when he tried to talk over NDP Leader Jack Layton. Even in the moment, it did occur to me that this was something not many people had ever done.

For some reason, I always seem to mess something up. The first time, in 2006, I had forgotten to turn off my BlackBerry. As I was reading the introduction, I felt it buzz. How embarrassing was it going to be to have my phone ring as I was 30 seconds into my script? Somehow I reached down and silenced it as I was reading the intro.

Then the Teleprompter broke, so I quickly had to find my place in the script and keep reading, trying to make it all look seamless.

Was someone trying to give me a heart attack?

This year, I somehow managed to kick the wiring out of the monitor on my desk - again while reading the intro - which meant I spent the entire two hours flying blind. I couldn't see the videos of the questions and couldn't see what shots were being used during the broadcast.

I spent the first five minutes of the debate playing with the wires, trying to reattach them, hoping the camera wasn't catching me trying to play technician. Ultimately, I gave up.

Was the debate a good television experience? I don't know. I never saw it.

Steve Paikin is anchor and senior editor of The Agenda with Steve Paikin on TVO.

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