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Let's get ready to rumble: Round Two  Friday night

[PoliticsWatch Updated 1:30 p.m. December 16, 2005]

OTTAWA  — The party leaders will square off again Friday evening for the English-language debate in Vancouver.  

The two-hour debate will be broadcast beginning at 8 pm ET Thursday and Friday evening on most major networks and news channels. 

This second debate in the first in a series of two debates. The second debates will be held in Gatineau or Montreal on January 9 and 10. 

The debate format has changed from 2004's gang up on Prime Minister Paul Martin where the leaders were shouting over each other in a series of seven-minute free-for-alls. 

After Thursday evening's French-language debate, the new format has received a lot of negative reviews from the media, who find it too contrived without enough interaction between the leaders. 

The is similar to that used in the 2004 U.S. presidential debates. 

Former broadcaster Trina McQueen will moderate and take videotaped questions from "average Canadians."

The average Canadians questions in the first debate were rather interesting, including one woman asking the leaders to swear on a Bible they would keep their promises -- No bible ever materialized -- and another man asking Harper if his position on gay marriage would change if he had a son who was gay. 

Each leader will speak for one minute to respond. Leaders will then get 30 seconds for a follow-up remarks. 

The Bloc Quebecois was the only party opposed to the new format. 

"I'm there to debate," Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said. "I was hoping that there would be interaction between the leaders. We were the only party asking to have interaction. It will be a different debate, but I will play by the rules."

Most of those who watched Thursday's debate declared Duceppe the winner. 

Prime Minister Paul Martin had mixed reviews, including a strongly-worded Globe and Mail column with the headline "Hapless Martin eviscerated in French debate."

Martin even committed the only gaffe of the debate demanding Conservative Leader Stephen Harper make it clear whether or not he would use the notwithstanding clause just seconds after Harper said he would not use the notwithstanding clause.

Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton were given poor marks overall by most observers, but they didn't have as much at stake as Martin and Duceppe. 

The first series of debates will not be as critical as the second round. 

The election campaign is in its early stages and if the leaders stumble or fail to score points this time there's always January. 

This is the first time in 17 years the same group of party leaders will appear on stage together for two-consecutive election debates. The last time that happened was in 1988 when Brian Mulroney, John Turner and Ed Broadbent went toe-to-toe-to-toe for the second campaign in a row. 

The 1984 debate was the only one to have produced a memorable soundbite - that of Mulroney chastising Turner for approving last-minute Trudeau patronage. 

"You had an option," Mulroney said in a debate that turned around the campaign. 

Since then, the leaders debates have not produced that many memorable moments. 

The only lasting memory of the 2004 debates was an exchange between Layton and Martin. After Layton interrupted Martin for about the 30th time, the PM joked, "Did your handlers tell you not to stop talking?" 

Here's what the leaders of each party must do and must not do for the debates. 

Paul Martin - Liberal Leader

Must do: A rope-a-dope strategy could suffice for the first series of debates. Martin should try to remain prime ministerial and not go on the attack too much. If he hasn't thought about it, he should be concerned about a question coming up from an average citizen out of nowhere - such as one about David Dingwall and his severance. Also he must remember that despite being exonerated by Justice John Gomery polls show that most Canadians do not believe he was in the dark. Martin needs to try to address this.

Must not do: The prime minister cannot look tired, act irritated, stammer and ramble on. He also should stop waving his arms around and rocking from side to side. Martin must be careful, however, to avoid one of the other party leaders scoring a knockout punch or making a serious or memorable gaffe. George W. Bush will not be at the debate so he doesn't have to worry about any of his attacks on the U.S. being rebutted. 

Stephen Harper - Conservative Leader

Must do: It looks like the Liberals have some long-term game plan this time out to portray Harper as a future lapdog to Bush, beholden to the National Rifle Association and Focus on the Family. Harper will have to sidestep any efforts by Martin to paint him as in the pockets of the Americans, but at the same time point out any contrasts between his positions and Martin's on wedge issues. Harper has to look in the camera and be less wooden than he is in the Tories' ad campaign. Harper disappointed many Conservatives in the last debate for failing to deliver any serious and damaging blow to Martin. He must do it either in this series of debates or the next. But he can't be an attack dog and has to appear prime ministerial. 

Must not do: Harper can't look scary or appear evasive on social issues like he was in 2004. Having a party policy convention should help him in this department. When Martin turns the issue to the Charter, Harper shouldn't get trapped there and return it to whatever the main issue is, whether it be gay marriage or euthanasia. If Martin wants to talk about the Charter, don't let him. Talk about the issue in the context of the Charter, don't' make the Charter the main issue. Don't mess around too much with Layton and Duceppe since you're trying to get Martin's job. Try not to make too many allegations about Liberal links to organized crime. 

Jack Layton - NDP Leader

Must do: Layton's campaign has been under the radar and he must use this opportunity to become on par with the other leaders again. Layton's task is simple. Get the message out not to vote Liberal. Outline all the NDP's accomplishments in the last Parliament and then make the case that these things could not happen if the Liberals win a majority government. 

Must not do: As leader of the fourth party, Layton can easily go on the attack. But he must not attack Harper too much. If Layton portrays Harper as a dangerous neo-con who must be stopped at all costs, he does so at his own electoral peril. The best strategy would be for Layton to make his case that he finds little difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives on his favourite issues - health care and tax cuts. 

Gilles Duceppe - Bloc Leader

Must do: This will be Duceppe's eighth leadership debate and he easily won last year's French-language debate. His only competition is Martin and he must focus his efforts on him. Martin will make the case that this election is like a referendum. Duceppe must clearly outline what he believes this vote means - is a vote for the Bloc a vote for separation or is it a vote against the Liberals? Expect Duceppe to launch the most stinging attacks on Martin and Liberals such as Pierre Pettigrew and Jean Lapierre. 

Must not do: Duceppe can't focus too much attention on Layton or Harper. He also shouldn't urge Quebecers to make the Liberals disappear in his closing statement. 

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