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Marc Garneau, left, and Justin Trudeau take part in a Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Feb. 16, 2013.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Marc Garneau is warning Liberals against electing an "entry-level" leader as he kept up his attacks on the front-running Liberal candidate, Justin Trudeau, in the second-last leadership debate.

Not only that, the Montreal MP, who is considered Mr. Trudeau's strongest opponent, took on a Liberal sacred cow – universal daycare. As leader, he said he would only support it if the country could afford it.

This was the fourth of five leadership debates – the last one is scheduled for later this month in Montreal. In a crowded field of eight contenders, Mr. Garneau is trying to distinguish himself from the others.

Again on Sunday he used every opportunity to contrast his experience in the military, as Canada's first astronaut and former head of the Canadian Space Agency, with that of the younger Mr. Trudeau.

"Leadership isn't an entry-level position," Mr. Garneau told the nearly 500 Liberals gathered at the historic Pier 21 Immigration museum on Halifax's waterfront.  "Canadians want a change in their politics. They want substance, not empty words."

Believed to be sneaking up on Mr. Garneau, though, is Joyce Murray, the B.C. MP.  She gave a a strong performance Sunday, taking a few swipes and mixing it up with Mr. Trudeau when she asked him for his strategy to defeat Stephen Harper in 2015.

Her campaign is seen to be attracting momentum because of a recent endorsement by high-profile environmentalist David Suzuki and the fact that she is differentiating herself with her position on one-time co-operation with the NDP to defeat the Harper Conservatives.

For those Liberals who are in favour of co-operation with the other so-called federal progressive parties, Ms. Murray is the candidate to support.

The leadership campaign enters a new phase Monday as the deadline for signing -up supporters closes at midnight. The next step is to register these people to vote, which begins on April 7. The winner will be announced April 14 in Ottawa.

For the candidates, it means they must now try to compel their supporters and those from other camps to vote for them.

The number of supporters is to be released Monday. Mike Crawley, president of the federal Liberal Party, said Sunday that there could be as many as 120,000 supporters.

Most of the candidates, who are running behind Mr. Trudeau played down the importance of how many supporters they have, arguing that it doesn't mean anything until the vote.

Clearly conscious of his front-running status, Mr. Trudeau stayed above the fray, committing to little and offering a few bromides about the importance of running a high-road positive campaign and listening to Canadians.

Asked about Mr. Garneau's remarks, Mr. Trudeau took a mild shot, arguing that his opponent had a different view of leadership.

"The kinds of top down leadership of the past is what we've tried over the past election cycles and is why we're sitting at 35 seats in the House of Commons right now," he said, adding that his leadershiop style is one of "setting bold, ambitious targets" citing his plan to have 70 per cent participation in post-secondary education.

Martha Hall Findlay, who garnered headlines at the last debate for attacking Mr. Trudeau as an out-of-touch rich kid, kept her powder dry on that front.

Rather, she took on Mr. Garneau on the childcare piece, arguing the country could not afford "not to" institute such a program.

"It is a fundamental question of equality of opportunity both for women, single parents and for children," she said as the audience broke into applause. "Universal daycare in every single study has shown that it pays back for every dollar you pay to get universal daycare and early learning we reap two to six dollars of savings income tax."