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Mulcair in the crosshairs during Montreal NDP debate

NDP leadership candidates, from left, Nathan Cullen, Thomas Mulcair, Paul Dewar, Martin Singh, Niki Ashton, Peggy Nash and Brian Topp attend an NDP leadership debate in Montreal, Sunday, March 4, 2012.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The perceived front-runner in the NDP leadership race, Thomas Mulcair was the target of pointed attacks from his six opponents in an otherwise uneventful confrontation in Sunday's second French language debate in Montreal.

Once again, Mr. Mulcair's social-democratic credentials came under heavy fire during the 90-minute debate. Niki Ashton accused him of not strongly opposing unfair trade agreements, and of turning his back on labour and the support from "ordinary people."

"Don't you recognize that our success in Quebec and throughout Canada is due to our progressive values" Ms. Ashton asked.

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Mr. Mulcair was making no apologies for seeking to increase the party's base with centrist views that he says will help attract the level of voter support needed to win an election.

"Is there anything wrong about getting people who are extraordinary, to go beyond our traditional base and to look for people who are not unionized, to look for older people, to look for the natives," Mr. Mulcair responded.

Brian Topp compared Mr. Mulcair's vision to that of former British Labour leader Tony Blair who steered his party away from its social-democratic roots. Mr. Topp noted that every social-democratic party in the Western world that followed Mr. Blair's ideology went down to defeat.

"Why do you want to adopt an agenda that brought all those parties to defeat?" Mr. Topp asked.

Mr. Mulcair argued that he was simply following what late party leader Jack Layton had started, insisting that a great deal more was needed in order to defeat the Conservatives.

"We have to move forward. A large part of our terminology is old. It doesn't sound good to the ordinary people we claim to represent. People want a modern party that takes into account sustainable development," Mr. Mulcair said.

Peggy Nash, a candidate with strong roots in the party's social-democratic traditions, went as far as to attack Mr. Mulcair's loyalty to the party when he failed to contribute financially to the NDP before becoming a leadership candidate.

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The party's 132,000 members began voting last Thursday and next Sunday's final debate in Vancouver will be the last chance for the aspiring candidates to make their mark.

Sunday's concerted attacks against Mr. Mulcair reflected the mood in the party where the choice may boil down to supporting the candidate who can best stand up for the party's traditional values or the one best capable of defeating Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Mr. Mulcair has clearly positioned himself as the latter, confident that party members will overlook his past as a former Quebec provincial Liberal.

However, recent reports about Mr. Mulcair being approached by the Conservatives to join their ranks when he quit the provincial Liberal government may create doubts among some NDP members. That explained in part why Mr. Mulcair, in his opening remarks on Sunday, attempted to reassure party members about his candidacy.

Despite the party's historically poor showing in Quebec over the years, "I accepted Jack's offer," said Mr. Mulcair, who joined the NDP in 2007 and won a by-election for the party.

On Sunday, he took credit for having helped the NDP win 59 seats in the province in last May's federal election.

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