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bruce anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC's The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

Audiences for leaders' debates are a mix of the most partisan and the most curious among us.

In preparing for debates, it follows, leaders want to do two things: delight their partisans and charm the curious. With that in mind, what might the leaders consider as they approach the first debate of this campaign?

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

Thomas Mulcair wants to consolidate his position as the best choice for "change voters." To the delight of those partisans who truly dislike the Conservative leader, Mr. Mulcair has proven he can do damage to Mr. Harper with a withering glance, a sardonic smile, a well-turned phrase.

In the House of Commons, a sitting PM can limit the beating he takes by staying in his seat. In a wide-open debate, incumbents often feel more like Lyndon Johnson did when he said about being President "you feel like a jackass caught in a hailstorm, you just have to stand there and take it."

Mr. Mulcair may be hoping the Conservative leader comes at him hard, because it will allow him to give better than he gets, without seeming too eager to fight. If the NDP leader overindulges in pummelling others, he can come off as too preoccupied with the game of politics. And the curious tune out.

Mr. Mulcair will face attacks, the most important of which will be about what an NDP government would mean for the sputtering economy. On this topic, he must be serious and thoughtful. The curious will want to be reassured, not spun.

For Justin Trudeau, the debate is a chance to bolster the enthusiasm of Liberal partisans, and get the curious thinking about a comeback story. Despite the bluster of his critics, his evening won't be about passing a policy IQ test.

Instead, the Liberal leader has two imperatives. First, he must show he can go into the corner with his rivals and come out with the puck. Most Canadian voters, like most Canadian hockey fans, don't like goons, but do like battlers. Toughness is job one for Mr. Trudeau.

Second, Mr. Trudeau must rally the curious to an optimistic, growth oriented economic agenda. He needs to contrast a Liberal approach on trade and resources with the "just say no" inclinations of the more radical influences within the NDP. The Liberal leader's fortunes will improve to the extent he shows confidence, toughness and an infectious optimism about the future.

Elizabeth May knows that in many parts of the country, green-inclined voters will be tempted to vote strategically, for candidates that can defeat Conservatives. Her strategy will of necessity be fluid, looking to grab a share of voice, pick up a handful of seats and build leverage for the post-election scenario. How much leverage she gains will depend heavily on how effective she is at drawing audiences in during this debate.

Stephen Harper may be a policy wonk, but his debate won't be about command of the policy files. His challenge, and opportunity, is all about tone.

Throughout his career as PM, he's worked with a different math than his opponents – setting his sights on less than half of the population and rallying his partisans by attacking common enemies: socialists, environmentalists, unionists, journalists.

He knows how to gin up the angry and his voters turn out in good numbers as a result. As a game plan it may not deliver landslides, but so far, three wins.

In this election, though, his margin for error is especially thin.

In the past he's made a virtue of showing he has little interest in the views of non-conservatives: Vote for me or not, I don't really care, and I won't ever change.

But here's the rub. His base isn't quite large enough any more. And to charm some of the curious but hesitant, his base strumming instincts need to be held in check.

When truly on-the-fence voters listen to Mr. Harper explain why his economic logic, they often like what they hear. When they observe him playing political games, the curious are turned off.

This early in the campaign at least, the Conservative leader would be wise to use the debate as a chance to preach his ideas, rather than prime the partisan pump.

Some people tune in to debates to be informed, but at least as many are hoping to be entertained. They want drama, something unexpected to happen. It's about emotion.

Viewers react to confidence, passion and authenticity, more than facts and figures. How honest a leader seems when talking about the ideas they say they care about. Lyndon Johnson had some wise words in this area too: "What convinces is conviction. Believe in the argument you're advancing. If you don't you're as good as dead. The other person will sense that something isn't there, and no chain of reasoning, no matter how logical or elegant or brilliant, will win your case for you."