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Conservative leadership candidates Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay wait for the start of the French leadership debate in Toronto on June 17, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay quickly went after one another in the first debate of the Conservative Party’s leadership race, with the two front-runners fighting over their respective experience in government and their ability to lead the party to victory in the next election.

In the first portion of the French-language debate, Mr. O’Toole took advantage of a question on military procurement to attack Mr. MacKay’s record as defence minister in the previous government of Stephen Harper.

“You failed to deliver the goods on the purchase of the F-35 [fighter jets],” said Mr. O’Toole, a Conservative MP. “Where are the planes?”

Mr. O’Toole added the Conservative Party needs a leader who is already in the House of Commons to be ready for the next election.

Mr. MacKay, who was an MP from 1997 to 2015 and a minister from 2006 to 2015, pointed out that Mr. O’Toole had only 11 months of experience in cabinet. He also criticized Mr. O’Toole for having used negative advertising during the leadership race.

“You are attacking other Conservatives, which badly hurts our party,” Mr. MacKay told Mr. O’Toole. “I am the only candidate who can unite the party.”

At various points in the debate, Mr. MacKay said he will defend gay rights and abortion rights, while accusing Mr. O’Toole of wavering on “social issues.”

The debate, which started more than 30 minutes late because of technical difficulties, exposed Mr. O’Toole and Mr. MacKay’s challenges in French, according to various political analysts.

“Both of them have yet to demonstrate a good enough grasp of the language to hold their own in the next election against [Liberal Leader Justin] Trudeau or [Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François] Blanchet,” said Stéphanie Chouinard, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College in Kingston. “They still have a lot of work to do in order to be ready to communicate and defend the party’s platform.”

Karl Bélanger, a political analyst and former NDP official, said that both Mr. O’Toole and Mr. MacKay risk faring badly against Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Blanchet in a French-language leaders’ debate.

“O’Toole’s accent is easier to understand, but we could feel MacKay gaining confidence as the night went on,” said Mr. Bélanger, who helped former NDP leader Jack Layton break through in Quebec in 2011.

The two other candidates, Conservative MP Derek Sloan and Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis, relied heavily on written notes to answer questions from the audience. In answer to a question on an energy corridor, Ms. Lewis read an answer on the importance of official languages in Canada.

A spokesman for the party, Cory Hann, said the candidates were not given the specific questions in advance, but informed ahead of time of the themes that would be raised.

Yan Plante, a former senior ministerial staffer in the Harper government, said the candidates’ struggles in French will force the Conservative Party to limit its ambitions in Quebec.

“If the objective is 10 seats in the province, that is possible, but not 35,” he said.

There are currently 35 Liberal MPs in Quebec, 32 from the Bloc, 10 from the Conservative Party and one from the NDP.

Mr. MacKay has garnered broader caucus support in Quebec than Mr. O’Toole. However, organization is particularly important in the leadership race because of the voting system. On Aug. 21, all ridings will be worth the same number of points in the final tally, which means that ridings with weak membership numbers – such as many of those in Quebec – will be worth as much as other parts where there are high membership numbers.

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