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Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre gestures towards Jean Charest as Roman Baber, left, Scott Aitchison and Leslyn Lewis, right, debate at the Canada Strong and Free Network conference, in Ottawa, on May 5.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The animosity between Ontario MP Pierre Poilievre and former Quebec premier Jean Charest set the tone for the first debate of the Conservative Party’s leadership race, where Mr. Charest was the outsider for his sharp criticism of the trucker blockades.

Five of the six candidates vying to be leader took part in the bruising Thursday night debate in front of a conservative crowd in Ottawa.

The unofficial debate was held by the conservative Canada Strong and Free Network, formerly known as the Manning Centre, and included Ontario MPs Leslyn Lewis and Scott Aitchison, and former independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown’s campaign said he was too busy holding events to attend.

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The debate kicked off a critical four weeks for the candidates as they race to sign up members before the early June deadline. The new leader will be announced on Sept. 10. The option on offer for the Conservative grassroots was quickly made clear at the Thursday debate: moderate some positions to appeal to a wider group of voters in a general election or count on a populist message to sway voters away from Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

Mr. Charest was met with boos that nearly drowned out his comments when he criticized Mr. Poilievre for supporting the trucker protests, that shuttered downtown Ottawa for most of February and prompted intermittent closings at several border crossings.

Mr. Poilievre “supported an illegal blockade,” Mr. Charest said. “You cannot make laws and break laws.”

“The average trucker has more integrity in his pinky finger than you had in your entire scandal-plagued Liberal cabinet,” Mr. Poilievre said in response, referring to Mr. Charest’s time as Quebec Premier.

The two also sparred over Mr. Charest’s work for Chinese telecom Huawei. Mr. Poilievre repeatedly demanded that the former premier disclose how much he made from the controversial company. Mr. Charest dismissed the point saying: “This is not a student council.” But he also declined to answer and said his work helped release the two Michaels, who were arbitrarily detained in China.

“Have you got some swamp land to sell us in Florida too?” Mr. Poilievre asked.

Mr. Charest was the federal leader of the Progressive Conservatives in the 1990s and later led the Quebec government under the Liberals – which was a coalition federalist party at the time. He was repeatedly forced to defend his blue credentials, with Mr. Poilievre suggesting Mr. Charest had temporarily donned a blue shirt “to take over the party.”

Running as the bridge-building candidate, Mr. Aitchison criticized the personal attacks. “All we do is yell and scream at each other,” he said. “Here we are calling each other names. What Canadian is going to trust this lot?”

Similarly, Mr. Baber said the focus should be on the issues. “I like everyone, even Jean, who can’t get my name right,” he said.

In his opening statement, Mr. Charest said Conservatives are the “national alternative” to the Liberals and have to “live up to that responsibility.” The veteran politician told the crowd they should elect him “if you’re tired of losing campaigns.” And he pointed to his history campaigning to keep Canada united during the Quebec referendums as proof he can unite the country behind Conservatives and address Western alienation.

Both he and Mr. Poilievre talked about the need to sway voters in the suburbs but Mr. Poilievre said the way to win there was by giving people their “purchasing power back” and getting “big bossy government” out of the way. In his opening statement, he decried vaccine mandates and inflation and pledged to defund the CBC.

The debate was moderated by Candice Malcolm from the conservative website True North and Jamil Jivani from the Canada Strong and Free Network. The crowd included Conservative stalwarts like Preston Manning and embattled Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

The ranked ballot vote in the race means that candidates will need to rely on support from other camps if no one wins on the first ballot. Mr. Poilievre focused his attacks on Mr. Charest, with little to say against Ms. Lewis, Mr. Aitchison or Mr. Baber.

However, Ms. Lewis challenged him to disclose his personal views on abortion, noting that he hasn’t clarified them. Mr. Poilievre has said he won’t change Canada’s abortion laws. Anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition says Mr. Poilievre used to be a “solid pro-life, pro-family” MP but the group says he abandoned those views in 2020.

Ms. Lewis also accused Mr. Poilievre of only speaking up for “freedom” during the pandemic when it was “convenient” and “popular.”

The race has turned into a “fight for the heart and soul of the party,” said pollster Nik Nanos. “On the one hand, Poilievre is looking to lead and capture a populist-style insurgency, first of the party and then of the country. In contrast, Charest and Brown are looking to shift closer to the centre to capture disaffected centrist minded voters.”

So far, Mr. Poilievre has attracted the largest crowds and the most cash. Newly released fundraising numbers show that by the end of March, Mr. Poilievre had raised $545,298 from 3,336 donors. Following close behind is Mr. Charest, who raised $490,088 but from just 572 donors.

At $225,751, Ms. Lewis fell well short in the total cash raised but attracted far more donors than Mr. Charest with 1,456 people contributing to her campaign. By the end of March, Mr. Brown raised $115,775 from 73 donors; Mr. Aitchison raised $90,945 from 70 people; and Mr. Baber $53,987 from 475 donors.

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