PARIS (AP) -- Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are preparing for their one chance for a knockout in the French presidential election race in their only one-on-one debate.
Much is at stake for both contenders, who are expected to square off Wednesday for more than two hours in their final showdown before Sunday's runoff vote.
Le Pen, has been setting the pace in the finale of the campaign with a well-oiled communication strategy that included a surprise visit at a factory just before her rival arrived, but the latest opinion polls show the pro-EU Macron holding a strong lead over his far-right rival.
The 39-year-old Macron, who has been criticized for his early celebrations after he finished nearly three points ahead of Le Pen in the first-round vote April 23, needs to convince leftist voters that his pro-business and liberal stance should not deter them from supporting him.
Le Pen, who has softened her anti-EU message over the past 10 days to broaden her political reach, is expected to hammer home her favorite themes of security and identity as she tries to lure traditional rightist voters who supported Francois Fillon in the first round. Fillon, a former prime minister, finished third with some 20 percent of the votes and polls suggest that as many as a third of Fillon's voters will choose Le Pen in the second round.
Both candidates will also go after backers of far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who refused to endorse either finalist in a race which he says pits "the extreme right" against "extreme finance" — a jab at Macron's career in banking.
Macron said this week he heard the "anger" of those who voted for populist candidates, while Le Pen, who tried to portray herself as the candidate of the people, called on the 7 million backers of Melenchon to "block" Macron.
The 48-year-old Le Pen should stay faithful to her colorful style and attack her rival head-on. Macron says he wants "to fight hand-to-hand, to fight in substance and demonstrate that her ideas are fake solutions."
Le Pen used a tweet to associate Macron to his mentor in politics, the unpopular President Francois Hollande.
"If Mr. Macron does not feel at ease, he still can ask Francois Hollande to come and hold his hand, I won't oppose it," Le Pen wrote.
Wednesday's debate marks the first time that a National Front candidate is taking part in the pre-runoff TV debate. In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen — Marine's father — made it to the second round, Jacques Chirac refused to appear with the far-right party co-founder, explaining that he did not want to contribute to the normalization of hatred and intolerance.
The campaign is unfolding amid unprecedented security, with France under a state of emergency after multiple attacks by Islamic extremists. Hollande called on Wednesday "for the utmost vigilance and the mobilization of all state means to allow the smooth running of the second round of voting for the presidential election."