Who can bring the federal Liberals back from third-party status? All nine leadership hopefuls, including perceived front-runner Justin Trudeau and lesser-known candidates like George Takach, pressed their case Sunday in the first debate.

The two-hour, sold-out event was hosted in Vancouver, with thousands of Canadians watching online or on TV.

Candidate Marc Garneau, a former astronaut and current MP, said Liberals need to focus on policy in order to move forward, with a knock at former Progressive Conservative prime minister Kim Campbell’s brief time in office.

“Kim Campbell once said that an election campaign is no time to talk about policy. Well, we all remember where that went,” Garneau said in his opening statement.

“I think we can all agree that this leadership race has to be about ideas. This race must be about defining who we are, what we represent and what we stand for.”

In his opening statement, Trudeau said he sought to strengthen the middle class -- a campaign theme he introduced when he first announced his candidacy.

“For the first time perhaps in our history, Canadians are unsure that their kids are going to have more opportunities than they had themselves,” he said.

Other high-profile rivals include Joyce Murray, former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon and former MP Martha Hall Findlay.

Lesser-known candidates, including Toronto lawyers George Takach and Deborah Coyne, Ottawa lawyer David Bertschi and retired military officer Karen McCrimmon, hoped the debate will show why they should be viewed as serious contenders.

Candidates engaged in a series of three-way debates in which they responded to 14 questions. Twelve of the questions were pre-selected from audience members.

One of the first questions touched on the recent Idle No More Movement: how would the candidates improve the living standards experienced by First Nations people?

Coyne said lasting change could only come from the prime minister.

“We have to move on eliminating the Indian Act, which is creating so many accountability problems, and we have to have autonomy for aboriginal governments -- that requires sustained attention at the prime ministerial level,” she said.

Cauchon said he “totally understands the frustration of First Nations across Canada,” and that the problem began when the government refused to proceed with the Kelowna Accord.

“Of course, there’s no simple answer,” he said. “But first, to have across the table a partner who is credible to the First Nations, that’s probably key. And Stephen Harper and his team are not credible anymore.”

Candidates also debated whether the Liberals should engage in electoral co-operation with the New Democrats in order to defeat the Conservative government.

Garneau and Hall Findlay said the answer was clearly no -- Liberals must hold fast to their own political identity and values -- but the party should push for electoral reform.

“Even if I’m not in favour of electoral co-operation with the NDP or a merger, I think it’s important to have electoral reform,” Garneau said. “That is why last week I proposed a concept of preferential voting. I think this will allow us to be more democratic in terms of our choice.”

Hall Findlay agreed, saying “it’s not enough to be elected by 50 per cent of the vote.”

However, Murray said co-operating with the New Democrats is likely the only way electoral reform would ever be enacted.

“Canadians want politicians to work together. They don’t like the toxic atmosphere that can be observed in Parliament,” she said.

“To do so, we must change our electoral system. But we cannot do it with Stephen Harper as prime minister, so that’s why I’m the only one who has suggested co-operating with other progressive voters. Together, we can ensure that we get rid of Stephen Harper.”

With polls showing him in the lead, Trudeau was expected to bear the brunt of any attacks during the debate.

In an effort to stand out, Hall Findlay and Garneau pitched themselves on the strength of their previous work experience, but Trudeau, a political novice, countered by promoting an ability to connect with Canadians on a personal level.

“It’s not enough for us to sit back and say, ‘These are our ideas, come back to the party.’ We have to get out and connect with Canadians. If we’re going to earn the trust of Canadians once again to govern this extraordinary country, it’ll be by engaging with them, town by town, community by community.”

Party members and supporters will cast their vote for the next leader by phone or online during the week of April 7. The winner will be announced April 14.

Liberals will vote by preferential ballot, selecting their first, second, third and subsequent choices in a single vote. If the voter’s top choice is knocked off the ballot, their second choice is counted and so on, until one candidate wins more than 50 per cent.

As candidates drop off the ballot, they will throw their support to other contenders who are still in the running.

With files from The Canadian Press