Thomas Mulcair came out of the final debate for the federal NDP leadership saying attacks by his rivals over whether he's a real New Democrat only confirms his front-runner status.
"We've been taking it as a fairly positive sign when we get that many questions that people are coming after us because they figure that our campaign is doing well," the former Quebec Liberal MLA told reporters after the 90-minute debate at the CBC's regional broadcasting centre.
"What they're essentially saying is they realize your campaign is doing well."
The leadership winner will take the NDP into the 2015 federal election, where the party is aiming to win power for the first time.
The seven remaining candidates gathered for the last of several debates in a province with almost a third of party members. Voting has already begun ahead of the March 23 and 24 convention to choose the NDP's next leader.
Niki Ashton, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Mr. Mulcair, Peggy Nash, Martin Singh and Brian Topp took questions from a moderator and each other on issues ranging from engaging youth to professional credentials for new Canadians.
But questions over Mr. Mulcair's centrist approach led to some of the most charged exchanges during the debate before hundreds in the main studio and breakout rooms. The issues have been raised before, but were in sharper focus Sunday as the candidates made their closing arguments to the membership both in the CBC complex and across Canada.
Mr. Mulcair, an Outremont MP and former house leader, was criticized as lukewarm about the party he wants to lead and vague about his plans to broaden its base.
"It seems like you're a little down on the party," Paul Dewar told Mr. Mulcair at one point, commenting on Mr. Mulcair's talk of moving the party in a different direction.
Peggy Nash was particularly emphatic on pressing Mr. Mulcair for any details. "New Democrats have a right to know what your plans are," she said.
Brian Topp accused Mr. Mulcair of wanting to go backward into divisive and distracting debates over issues the NDP has previously resolved. "Instead of saying our party is the problem, shouldn't we be attacking unfair taxes, climate change and inequality – the issues our party was founded to fight?"
Throughout, Mr. Mulcair said he wanted to be consistent with tactics that elevated the NDP, but reach beyond its traditional base, and do more to connect with young people, and ethno-cultural associations.
He emphasized that he would empower riding associations to run campaigns that allow them to tweak their message to local sensibilities, as long as they were mindful of NDP national policy. That approach, he said, powered the NDP in Quebec where it won 59 seats in the past election.
"What we accomplished in Quebec is what we have to do in the rest of Canada," said Mr. Mulcair.
He said the request for autonomy has been one of the surprise messages he has heard while touring Canada to find support for his leadership bid.
After the debate, Mr. Cullen was dismissive of the criticism of his rival. "This talk and notion of betrayal and some New Democrats are good New Democrats and others need to pass some kind of loyalty test is offensive to me," he told reporters. "It's wedge politics done within the family."