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The five candidates vying for the Ontario Liberal Party leadership squared off for the first time on Thursday, taking aim at the Progressive Conservative government, but some targeted perceived front-runner Bonnie Crombie with one suggesting she is “Doug Ford lite.”

Thursday’s debate in Thunder Bay, Ont., was the first of five featuring 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 Yasir Naqvi; and MPPs Ted Hsu and Adil Shamji.

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 raised thousands of dollars in donations from developers.

When she launched her campaign, she even mused about opening parts of the Greenbelt, although Thursday she called Mr. Ford’s move to develop on parts of the environmentally protected land around Toronto an “$8-billion scandal” that was just the “tip of the iceberg.” She had also previously urged the party to appeal to the “centre-right.”

“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?”

The debate served to draw the battle lines in a contest that has drawn 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.

Who’s running for leader of the Ontario Liberal Party?

The race was called after 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, saying before the debate that Mr. Ford and his party are “afraid of our momentum.”

“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.

In June, she told The Globe and Mail that there may be “justification” in developing certain parts of the Greenbelt – with proper consultations – but argued that Mr. Ford had failed to properly explain his plan. She also called the area “sacred.”

Ms. Crombie said that every Liberal must come together to beat Mr. Ford in the next election.

“We’re going to create that spark and we’re going to build back this party. I can sense the excitement,” she said. “We’re going to attract the best candidates. We’re going to raise a war chest, and look out Doug Ford, because we’re coming for you in 2026.”

Mr. Erskine-Smith positioned himself as a politician who speaks his mind, noting his track record in criticizing his own government for breaking its electoral reform pledge. He also went after Ms. Crombie’s housing record as mayor, saying she has failed to build enough homes to address the housing crisis.

Mr. Hsu, a former federal politician who now sits as one of nine Liberal MPPs in the Ontario Legislature, argued that he is a trusted economic leader who has run a $50-million business, and is the only candidate to have put out an economic policy.

He also said the province needs developers, because people need 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.”

And Mr. Shamji, an emergency-room physician turned MPP, focused on the importance of reforming the health-care system that touches on all facets of life.

“I’ve written a lot of prescriptions in my life, but I’ve never been able to write a prescription for housing, groceries or clean air, and the closest I can get is elected office,” he said.

The two-hour debate focused on issues such as health care, housing and affordability. The candidates also weighed in on education and long-term care, as well as the best way to regain the trust of voters, after the party was nearly decimated in the 2018 election.

“We have a Premier right now who says one thing and does another, and yet has made inroads in the past elections based in rural Ontario and made inroads in Northern Ontario,” Mr. Erskine-Smith said.

“Integrity is Doug Ford’s greatest weakness, and it can and should be our greatest strength.”

Mr. Naqvi said the party needs to regain its identity as a practical choice that focuses on health, education and affordability.

“Trust is really important,” he said. “You cannot elect a leader who one day says they are going to open the Greenbelt, and the next day changes their mind. 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.”

Mr. Shamji said the party needs to come across as “standing up for more than our own survival,” and Mr. Hsu said that in order to attract more people to the party, “we need to conduct ourselves with the highest ethical standards.”

The Ontario Liberal Party announced this week that its membership now totals more than 80,000 people and the leadership race represents the largest contest in the party’s history.

Ms. Crombie claimed to have signed up 38,700 people, while Mr. Naqvi said he signed up more than 31,000. Mr. Shamji said he recruited 12,000 new members.

Mr. Erskine-Smith, however, said leadership campaigns are known to publish “self-reported, unrealistic and inflated numbers” and that he wouldn’t be participating in “this spin.” Mr. Hsu said he brought in thousands of new members and wouldn’t release specifics.

Ms. Crombie has raised $850,253 so far in the contest, almost as much as the other leadership rivals combined.

With a report from Jeff Gray in Toronto

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