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Kathleen Wynne, Minister Of Municipal Affairs And Housing, is scrummed outside a cabinet meeting at Queens Park on Oct. 16, 2012.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Liberal leadership race kicks into gear this weekend with the first debate between the seven men and women running to become the next premier of Ontario.

The candidates will square off in Ingersoll in southwestern Ontario Saturday afternoon in the first of five scheduled debates before the leadership convention at Maple Leaf Gardens on Jan. 25-26.

It'll be the first chance for most people to hear what the would-be premiers have to say and for the candidates to highlight the differences from their competitors, all of whom served in Dalton McGuinty's cabinet at one time or another.

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Kathleen Wynne, one of the perceived front-runners in the race to replace McGuinty, said the candidates will have to walk a fine line as they attempt to stake out their own ground without treading too heavily on each other or the government's record.

"Party members don't want to see us ripping each other apart," said Ms. Wynne, whose campaign sold 8,000 new memberships.

"They want to see us sharing ideas, being constructive and finding solutions together. What's fundamental and very critical to this leadership race, I think, is that we do it in a way that preserves the party as a whole."

While they're all Liberals, some differences are starting to emerge on policy, with former government services minister Harinder Takhar, the last entrant into the race, staking out ground on the right side of the party.

Mr. Takhar, who said he sold 4,000 memberships despite entering the race with only 24 hours left to sign up new Liberals, wants to balance the budget by 2016-17, one year earlier than currently planned, and promises a $5,000 tax credit for job creators.

Sandra Pupatello of Windsor, the only candidate from outside the Greater Toronto Area, left Queen's Park in 2011 for a Bay Street job. She says she wants to reach out to industry and businesses as well as the opposition parties to find the best ways to boost jobs and the economy. Ms. Pupatello did not disclose her leadership sales.

Gerard Kennedy, who finished second to Mr. McGuinty at the 1996 Liberal leadership, is said to have sold about 5,000 memberships. He likes to remind party members he has no association with scandals such as eHealth, a police probe in the Ornge air ambulance service and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to cancel two gas plants.

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Mr. Kennedy left Ontario politics in 2006 for Ottawa but lost his job as an MP in the 2011 federal election, and is considered one of the more prominent names in the race.

"I hope the fact that I'm not associated with any of the issues that have been flash points will allow us to deal with those issues," he said recently.

Former Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray has talked about giving northern Ontario more autonomy and powers, is promising a new tax and incentive structure for small business and start-ups to attract $2 billion a year in venture capital and a no-money-down plan for college and university tuitions.

Charles Sousa, a former Royal Bank executive, said he's running to be Ontario's "jobs" premier and believes his background as a banker will help him run a government that is fiscally responsible and, at the same time, create more jobs.

Mr. Sousa, who sold 4,000 memberships, said he would make it a priority to "transform" Ontario's rural communities by bringing more high-skilled jobs in areas like information technology.

Eric Hoskins — a medical doctor and co-founder of the charity War Child Canada, who has only been a member of the legislature for a few years — says it's his experience from outside government that he brings to the table. Mr. Hoskins admits the government has made mistakes, and says he would bring a new approach to deciding where new energy projects are located.

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Signing up new members before the Nov. 23 cut-off date was crucial because they will get to vote for the delegates who will attend the leadership convention and actually vote directly for the new leader and premier.

Delegates will be selected at meetings across the province the weekend of Jan. 11-12, just two weeks before the convention.

The candidates are expected to be greeted in Ingersoll by protesters opposed to a landfill in the area.

"We welcome the opportunity to inform the Liberal party and the people who hope to lead it that our community is dealing with a grave, life-changing concern that is already adversely impacting us: Walker Industries' mega landfill proposal," said Steve McSwiggan, Ingersoll resident and chair of Oxford People Against the Landfill.

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