While many have opined about the value and tedious format of the televised leaders debate, one thing remains certain:  people (other than those who are involved in it every day) pay little attention to the election until the night of the debate.

The period from debate night until the polls open is when people start taking the election seriously and start to make up their minds.

Each party is hoping that their momentum coming out of the debate carries them forward and into government on October 7th.

It’s a time of heavy polling to tap into any changes in mood of the electorate. (Speaking of polling, if you haven’t already done so take a look at H+K’s election predictor at http://predictor.hillandknowlton.ca/#/ontario+2011.)

That is not to say what has happened up until debate night is not important, it is.  However, in this 2011 campaign, no one has made any major errors, the campaign buses have run on time and the parties have stuck to their messages.

Tomorrow night’s debate does become important for a few reasons: two of the three leaders are untested in this format and, if we are to believe the polls, the PCs and Liberals are in a dead heat.  So debate performance will play a larger role in voters’ minds as they determine who to support.

Andrea Horwath will face the biggest challenge as she not only needs to let people get to know her but she also has to portray herself as a credible candidate for Premier.

Tim Hudak will get points just for showing up – he’s the leader of the opposition and while people may know something about him, this will be their first opportunity to get up close and personal.  In addition to the central PC campaign message – why Dalton McGuinty can’t be trusted on taxes – expect Hudak to highlight his experiences growing up in the Niagara region and how everyone deserves a fair chance in Ontario.  Hudak and Horwath will speak about the need for change after eight years of Liberal governments.

McGuinty, now a veteran of these debates, will do his best to show that he is the leader with the steady hand on the wheel while trying to steer Ontario through turbulent economic times.  He will argue that now is not the time for change and that we need someone with experience to lead the province right now.

Will there be a knockout punch? Most times there isn’t.  It takes a skilled speaker to know when to go in for “kill” and an equally skilled speaker to dodge.

Either way, the campaign is likely to turn nasty as the negative ads get rolled out for the final stretch.  The PCs will ramp up their “taxman” ads, the Liberals, who have already begun saying that a vote for the NDP is a vote for Tim Hudak, will also set their sights on the PC leader.  The NDP will have the most toned-down approach calling on the electorate to reject the approaches of the two traditional parties.

This is one of the closest races in Ontario and the next ten days will be the ones to watch as each party reaches into its bag of tricks to try to get ahead.