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New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Peggy Nash (left) and party president Brian Topp embrace following the NDP leadership debate in Ottawa.BLAIR GABLE

The contest for a new leader of the NDP and the official opposition entered a fresh phase with the first formal showdown of the race.

All nine candidates on the stage at the Ottawa Convention Centre on Sunday talked about their interest in a more equitable distribution of Canada's wealth, with little divergence in opinion about how to accomplish that.

But the contest was not about policy – it was about delivery and who could best assume the mantle of the charismatic Jack Layton, whose death in August left a vacancy at the top of the party.

New Democrats are being asked to decide which person they can picture facing off against Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons, and whose face they can envision on the side of a campaign bus.

There is no way to adequately read who is in front with the March 24 vote months away. But the debate on Sunday is unlikely to have moved vast numbers of New Democrats one way or the other.

Brian Topp, the former party president, and Thomas Mulcair, the MP who gave the party its first breakthrough in Quebec, remain the presumed front-runners based on the endorsements they have received and the attention they have generated.

Sunday's event was billed as a debate about the economy. But anyone waiting for some point and counterpoint would have been disappointed.

At one stage, Mr. Topp tried to mix it up with Paul Dewar, an Ottawa MP who is also believed to be in the top half of the pack.

Both Mr. Topp and Mr. Dewar released economic platforms last week, and Mr. Topp wanted to know how Mr. Dewar planned to pay for his. But Mr. Dewar was not interested in the battle and the small spark of controversy was quickly doused.

"I tried to tap gloves with him a little bit, to see if he wanted to talk about it and in the end he chose not to engage… ," Mr. Topp told reporters after the event. Still, he said, "it's not a bad thing that the party's united and we are all like-minded."

There was no clear winner from the two-hour affair, which saw candidates respond, for one minute each, to questions posed by Canadians via the Internet and also from their fellow contenders.

But there may be been a loser. Robert Chisholm, the former leader of the NDP in Nova Scotia, was set apart from the other candidates because he could not answer questions in French.

Asked after the debate if he thinks he can win despite the fact that he is not bilingual, Mr. Chisholm said he is taking lessons. "It's really important," he said. "But I also think I bring leadership experience to the table…"

Mr. Mulcair was the only one to offer his opening address in both official languages. While the economy was supposed to be the focus, Mr. Mulcair tried to talk about the direction the party has to take if it is to win government.

Overall, however, there was little light between the policies of the nine contenders.

Nathan Cullen, the MP from British Columbia who has distinguished himself from the others by proposing some co-operation with the Liberals, said "we'll have more differences of opinion, I suspect, as the race goes on …" Mr. Cullen's quips brought a bit of levity to the event.

Peggy Nash, a Toronto MP and former party president, seemed solemn and earnest by contrast. Niki Ashton, a young Manitoba MP, appeared confident. And Romeo Saganash, an MP from Quebec, looked nervous at the outset but relaxed as the debate went on.

Martin Singh, the Nova Scotia pharmacist who came out of nowhere to enter the leadership race, held his own in both the French and the English portions of the event.

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