The televised debates will dominate the election campaign, dwarfing the more familiar rituals of interviews, press conferences and rallies in their sweaty, nerve-wracking, unpredictable significance.
The three leaders are already obsessed by their peak time challenge and have begun their preparations as if they were taking make or break exams, which in some ways they are. All of them look in particular at the way President Obama performed in the debates during the last US campaign, when he managed to be conversational, but authoritative and quick-witted.
"Obama was useless in some of his early rehearsals, but slowly discovered the right tone and voice. It takes a lot of hard work," says a cabinet minister who will be advising Gordon Brown. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are also studying Obama and other past successful performers in the US.
The prospect of the debates shapes the pre-election rhythms too, playing even a small part in the timing of the campaign. I am told that Brown ruled out the possibility of an election earlier than 6 May because he wants as much space as possible to get ready for the unprecedented events.
He worries that his opponents have endless hours to get ready now while he is distracted by prime ministerial duties and that if he called an early election he would be the least prepared. The election will be held on 6 May and not before partly because of the debates.
Soon the media coverage will be as intense as the behind-the-scenes preparations. The build-up to the first debate will be similar to previews of major sporting events. Fashion designers will predict the suits, the ties, or perhaps in some cases the discarding of a tie. Hairdressers will anticipate the haircuts of the three leaders. An army of pundits will be on hand to give their predictions of who will perform best.
The verdicts afterwards will be immediate and assessed by the three leaders and their teams with a neurotic fervour. There will be instant opinion polls too, awaited almost as eagerly and nervously by the three parties as the result of the general election itself.
Advocates of the live debates argue passionately that they will bring politics to life and attract massive audiences. On the second point they are unquestionably correct. The novelty will ensure that many millions will tune in for the first debate and perhaps for the other two as well. But there are dangers that a sense of anti-climax will follow the eager anticipation.
The debates will be strictly controlled as broadcasters meet the rigid demands of balance between the three leaders. The audiences will also be carefully selected. I can guarantee now that if one questioner gives Brown a hard time another will give Cameron an equally tough ride. Scope for spontaneity will be limited. The BBC, never knowingly under-managed when preparing for set piece events, will have an army of executives involved for their allocated debate on the economy, overstaffing that can lead to stifling caution or the other extreme, a shrill, but contrived populism. The leaders risk being over-rehearsed too as they seek to please, and above all, not to make a mistake. The level of preparation and control might fuel voters' cynicism rather than address it.
Nonetheless the events were unavoidable in an era of 24-hour television news in which the political focus is almost exclusively on the leaders of the three main parties. Even with all the constraints and advance hype they are the great wild cards in what might be a close political race. Will Brown discover a tonal range to accompany his claims of gravitas? Will Cameron acquire a gravitas and a set of credible policies to match his tonal range? Will Clegg make the most of exposure that his predecessors could only dream of?
Like much relating to the coming election the televised debates are hard to predict. They might be dull. Possibly they could be sensational game changers. The three leaders will think of little else during the campaign until the third and final debate is over.Reuse content