The leaders’ debate is usually the watershed moment of an election campaign. Tonight, the provincial party leaders will be given an opportunity to address a large public audience, promote their election platforms and highlight the weak spots of their opponents.

The importance of the debate cannot be underestimated.

Up to the last moment, party strategists will be preparing their candidates to focus on their messages, look like leaders for the camera, show empathy, perfect their body language and above all else, deflect potentially damaging questions while bridging to the benefits of their own election platforms.

Each candidate will try and accomplish a specific goal.

Premier Wynne’s objective will be to demonstrate that she is the controlling and driving force behind a new Liberal Party, differentiating her government from Dalton McGuinty’s. She needs to go for a win, or a draw at the worst. Anything less will be considered a failure. Unlike her opponents, this is her first leaders’ debate (though she did get a dry run in the Northern Debate).

Tim Hudak needs to demonstrate he will not completely slash and burn the government (ie: any cuts will be in non-essential areas and savings will be reinvested). Maybe more importantly he will need to overcome a credibility issue regarding his party’s job calculation error. His overall objective will be to demonstrate that he can be trusted and is capable of leading the province. A draw won’t help him. That won’t be enough to win over much needed potential converts that currently exist among undecided voters.

Andrea Horwath, who has often polled personally popular, needs to demonstrate that she is capable of leading and that she is a viable option for Premier. Almost more importantly (and pretty basic), she needs to insert herself into the election narrative, which has largely been defined by the other two parties.

What should we be looking for during the debate?

Typically, each party leader is given time at the beginning and at the end of the debate to give their statements, but it’s the in-between that is going to be very interesting. In tonight’s debate, that ‘middle’ will be defined by six questions chosen by the debate’s media consortium that will be asked via video by voters.

There is no question that both Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath will go for the attack on Liberal waste and fiscal mismanagement. The question is when and where in the debate will they will do this as they can’t just offer attacks; they must also present themselves as viable alternatives for Premier.

The question for Premier Wynne will be whether she can remain calm under attack and demonstrate she owns the leadership position amongst the three. The Premier is expecting attacks, but needs to be able to pivot beyond apologies and onto a message about the future.

Beyond the debate itself will be the media analysis of who owned the stage, who faltered, and who was the most effective. This analysis (look for our Insight Piece this Friday) will shape the direction for the final days of the campaign.

And finally, follow three of our H+K Ontario political experts tonight (@VonAlissa, @ORadchenko, @CathyWorden) as they tweet throughout the debate and provide as-it-happens analysis.