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Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie stands on stage with supporters at a rally in Mississauga, Ont., on June 14.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The race to lead the Ontario Liberal Party is accelerating with a series of debates this fall focused on deciding who should take on Premier Doug Ford in the next election – and perceived front-runner Bonnie Crombie is in the crosshairs of her opponents.

The five candidates vying for the leadership squared off for the first time on Thursday, taking aim at the Progressive Conservative government on everything from housing to health care. But two of them sharply criticized Ms. Crombie for her previous comments about potentially opening up the Greenbelt, and her connection to developers – with Yasir Naqvi suggesting she is “Doug Ford lite.”

This week’s debate in Thunder Bay, Ont., was the first of five for the candidates looking to lead the third-place party: Ms. Crombie, the Mississauga mayor who is taking a leave of absence next month; Liberal MPs Nate Erskine-Smith and Mr. Naqvi, a former provincial cabinet minister; and MPPs Ted Hsu and Adil Shamji, an emergency-room physician turned MPP.

Both Mr. Erskine-Smith and Ms. Crombie aimed barbs squarely at Mr. Ford in their opening statements. But Mr. Naqvi launched a thinly veiled critique of Ms. Crombie, who has mused about opening up parts of the Greenbelt to land swaps, and has raised thousands of dollars in donations from developers. She had also previously urged the party to appeal to the “centre-right,” although later said she misspoke.

“Do we want a leader who is Doug Ford lite, peddling the same kind of insider elite politics?” Mr. Naqvi asked the audience. “Or a leader who is a principled Liberal, experienced and works hard to challenge the status quo?”

During the debate, Mr. Erskine-Smith also went after Ms. Crombie’s housing record as mayor, saying she has failed to build enough homes to address the housing crisis, as well as her previous Greenbelt comments.

“Are we going to win with a leader who said we’re going to open up the Greenbelt?” he said.

Ms. Crombie, in her opening statement, called Mr. Ford’s move to develop on parts of the environmentally protected land around Toronto an “$8-billion scandal” – referencing the scathing Auditor-General’s report that concluded the government favoured certain developers in the decision – that was just the “tip of the iceberg.”

The debate served to draw battle lines in a contest that has garnered significant attention in political circles, as well as notice from Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, who have frequently attacked Ms. Crombie. Party members are set to cast their ranked ballots on the weekend of Nov. 25 and the winner is to be unveiled Dec. 2.

The race was called when former leader Steven Del Duca resigned last year after a provincial election in which he failed to win his own riding and the party didn’t make significant electoral gains.

Ms. Crombie, a popular three-term mayor who will start an unpaid leave of absence on Oct. 7, has billed herself as the most experienced leader to take on Mr. Ford in the 2026 campaign.

“I’ve had the opportunity to go toe to toe with Doug Ford on many occasions, and I know that I rankle him, and I think that’s a pretty good thing,” she said during the debate.

Although singled out numerous times by her rivals, Ms. Crombie did not engage in a tit for tat about her previous Greenbelt comments, instead voicing her opposition to the Premier’s plan.

Dan Moulton, a former senior adviser to Liberal premiers and a partner at Crestview Strategy in Toronto, said that while Ms. Crombie is clearly the front-runner in the contest, he views it as a three-way race between her, Mr. Naqvi and Mr. Erskine-Smith.

He said it likely won’t be a one-ballot win for any of the contenders under the party’s new one-member one-vote system – with each area of the province given equal weight – which replaced the former delegated conventions.

“Bonnie is the dominant force in this race, she is drawing a lot of attention from the media, the public and even from the Premier. And so she’s in a really enviable position, but this isn’t going to be done on one ballot, so you’ve got an opportunity if you’re Yasir or Nate to challenge her,” Mr. Moulton said.

He added that her main opponents have tried to seize on her comments about the Greenbelt, which the Liberals created in 2005.

“The Greenbelt’s one of the most important public-policy accomplishments of Ontario Liberals. So it’s one of those sacred parts of our party’s identity,” he said. “But the only person the Greenbelt scandal is doing lasting damage to is Doug Ford.”

Mr. Hsu, a former federal politician who now sits as one of nine Liberal MPPs in the Ontario Legislature, also alluded to Ms. Crombie’s ties to developers. He said the province needs developers to build houses, but one way to build trust “is write down your housing policy first, and then go ask for money – instead of the other way around.”

Mr. Naqvi later added that trust is “really important.”

“You cannot elect a leader who one day says they are going to open the Greenbelt, and the next day changes their mind,” he said. “Or one who takes money from the same people who are donating to Doug Ford and says that somehow they’re going to act any different.”

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