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Federal party leaders to face off in debate

WATCH: The leaders of the federal parties kept a low profile ahead of the first debates Thursday night. They are all jockeying for position, trying to get your attention and win your trust. Jacques Bourbeau reports.

OTTAWA – In the old days, the televised leaders’ debate marked the beginning of the final sprint of a federal election campaign, a time rife with potential for turning points, momentum shifts and the proverbial “knockout punch.”

Not so this time out – the longest campaign in more than a century is less than a week old and it’s hard to tell just how many Canadians are paying attention.

No matter: Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Green party Leader Elizabeth May are squaring off in Toronto in a rare early debate – the first of many – that promises to shape the rest of the campaign.

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“I’m looking forward to sparring a little bit, work out some kinks,” said Trudeau, who worked out with a coach. “This morning seemed like an appropriate time to do some training.”

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The economy, the environment, energy, foreign policy and security are among the issues expected to dominate the two-hour verbal battle, being hosted by Maclean’s magazine and moderated by political editor Paul Wells.

The debates themselves have been a source of controversy.

In past elections, the leaders have gathered usually at the midpoint of the campaign to take part in an English and a French debate, both of them televised nationally by a consortium of broadcasters.

That’s not happening this time. The Conservatives bowed out, followed by the NDP, which has said Mulcair won’t take part in any debate that doesn’t include Harper.

The Maclean’s debate does include May, who hasn’t been included in a leaders’ debate since 2008. May has been preparing privately for the event, but opted to forgo the mock debates preferred by her rivals.

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“It may be my experience as a lawyer,” May said.

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“I never practised my arguments before a judge in front of a mirror before going into court … it is a personal comfort level with knowing my material and then speaking from the heart.”

The other political leaders have maintained a relatively low profile leading up to tonight’s event.

Mulcair visited the office of NDP candidate Jennifer Hollett in the Toronto riding of University-Rosedale, saying he’s ready for the showdown.

“Mr. Harper has given us eight deficits in a row, $150 billion in new debt…and he’s got one of the worst job-creation records in Canadian history,” Mulcair told supporters.

“You have to go all the way back to the crisis of the 1920 to find someone with a worse economic record.”

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An NDP government, he said, would do better. It would kick-start the economy with investments in infrastructure, champion manufacturing, and lower small business taxes.

The debate featuring the four main party leaders marks the first time Mulcair will be participating in such a tussle. He only took over as party leader in March 2012 after the death of his predecessor, Jack Layton, who had led the party into the last election in 2011.

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Party insiders say Mulcair, who won plaudits for his prosecutorial approach in question period at the height of the Senate scandal, will not try to emulate that style in the debate.

Trudeau, meanwhile, invited the media to watch him work out at a boxing gym in Toronto, conjuring memories of his 2012 charity boxing match with former Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau.

The intended parallels with the verbal donnybrook to come were painfully obvious as the Liberal leader sparred with a coach at Paul Brown Boxfit.