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Stephen Harper will be everyone's target, yet he's still likely to have the easiest job in Thursday's first election debate. At least he has an audience of his own.

It is NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, first-timers both, who are in more of a dog-eat-dog competition. They're fighting to emerge pre-eminent among those who want to oust the sitting PM – the large pool of voters looking for the strongest alternative.

(Related: Go here for our coverage of the first election debate)

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While those two kick and scratch to win over the same group of people, Mr. Harper doesn't have to enter too deeply into the fray. He can focus on delivering his message, about the economy, security and leadership, to the roughly 40 per cent of the electorate willing to hear it.

It's not going to be so straightforward for Mr. Mulcair. He walks in with a reputation as a political prosecutor with a proven talent for flaying opponents. To succeed, he has to best two major-party leaders, especially Mr. Trudeau – after all, he's portrayed himself as the stronger leader to challenge Mr. Harper. And a leader sometimes knocked as "Angry Tom" has to do it all without looking harsh.

"You can go too far and end up looking mean, and reinforcing a narrative that the Conservatives and Liberals have been trying to advance," said Ian Capstick, managing partner of communications agency MediaStyle, and a former NDP adviser.

Winning debates is as much about making impressions as scoring points, and for many voters Mr. Mulcair is still making a first impression. The NDP Leader sometimes talks too fast and ends up sounding too much like a smart lawyer – a concern for a candidate who has tried to warm up his image.

And he also must accomplish another mission: delivering a message that his party has moderate, credible economic policies. Voters' doubts about NDP economics are still the party's weakness, and it's the ground on which his opponents will attack.

For Mr. Trudeau, it's a high-pressure outing. Forget the spin doctors claiming it will be easy for the Liberal Leader because the bar is low – such as Mr. Harper's campaign spokesman, Kory Teneycke, who opined that if Mr. Trudeau "comes on stage with his pants on, he'll probably exceed expectations."

The other side to the narrative that Mr. Trudeau is "not ready" – spread aggressively through Conservative ads – is that viewers will look for evidence that it's true. Only a solid performance can dispel the notion. A big stumble could quickly be viewed as proof that opponents were right.

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That might normally be cause to play it safe, but Mr. Trudeau has fallen behind Mr. Mulcair. A chunk of his previous support has drifted to the NDP, but many voters are still willing to consider either party. He has to start denting Mr. Mulcair to have a shot at beating Mr. Harper.

So he must avoid mistakes, but he's under pressure to take risks.

He has already unveiled some of the attacks he'll use against Mr. Mulcair, accusing him of being unwilling to raise taxes on the rich, and willing to lower the bar for Quebec separation. The question is how hard he will hit. "Does he come out of the gate swinging?" Mr. Capstick asked. "Or does he try to come out of the debate standing?"

And that leaves Mr. Harper on his own turf. Of course, both Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau, as well as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, will be needling the Conservative Leader like a voodoo doll.

But it's not necessarily bad for Mr. Harper, who likes to play the role of strong leader beset by lesser critics. And although Mr. Harper isn't a brilliant debater, and doesn't usually land heavy blows, he's shown in past debates he can skillfully avoid serious damage.

Instead, he keeps delivering scripted messages to his audience – and, for the most part, it's his own audience. It's not the people who want change. It is Conservative supporters, whose votes he wants to solidify, and another group who will consider him but who aren't really Conservatives.

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He can go after that second group by raising doubts about the risks of his opponents, and projecting reassuring experience. He, too, must avoid going overboard into arrogance. But it is, at least, a straightforward message – and he knows his target market.

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