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'You're so mad': finger-pointing and shaky French dominate first Tory leadership debate
OTTAWA -- Shaky French and finger pointing dominated the first face-off in the race to take the helm of the Conservative Party Wednesday night, as four leadership hopefuls took to the French-language debate stage -- despite no candidate being fully bilingual.
Just shy of 40 minutes after the planned start time, Peter MacKay, Erin O'Toole, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan stood together on the physically-distanced debate stage, though some were more linguistically present than others.
MacKay and O'Toole were well-practiced enough that their French allowed for what was, at times, a lively debate. Sloan's command of the language trailed behind the two, with near-constant glances at his notes. Meanwhile, Lewis read every word she said from prepared notes, at times reading an answer that didn't correspond with the question.
However, the barbs exchanged between O'Toole and MacKay dominated the debate, as the two didn't mince their words and both went for the jugular as they lobbed their jabs.
O'Toole repeatedly accused MacKay of attacking him over his Quebec platform, while MacKay delivered what many see as a poison pill in Conservative circles -- accusing O'Toole of supporting a carbon tax.
"It's unacceptable…to divide our members, not unite our members. I hope that we won't have a leader that will support the carbon tax, like Mr. O'Toole," MacKay said.
O'Toole fiercely rebutted the claim, accusing MacKay multiple times of lying. "Another lie, Mr. MacKay," said O'Toole.
The feud between the two escalated to the point that the moderator was forced to interrupt, asking the two to allow Sloan and Lewis to participate. After a brief pause to listen to a question from Sloan about the economy, MacKay and O'Toole resumed arguing, sparring over who has attacked the other more.
At one point during the debate, in a dig at O'Toole's environmental policies, MacKay even went so far as to call O'Toole "Erin Trudeau."
Another flashpoint issue was party unity and social conservatism.
Sloan came right out the gate speaking about his opposition to abortion, focusing on the issue in his opening remarks. However, the main debate over a woman's right to choose landed between O'Toole and MacKay. MacKay repeatedly alleged that O'Toole's stance on the issue remains unclear -- despite O'Toole asserting his support of a woman's right to choose in his answer to the first question of the debate.
Speaking in a scrum after the debate, O'Toole again clarified that he is pro-choice.
O'Toole in turn slammed MacKay for his months-old comment about outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's social conservatism hanging on his neck like a stinking albatross, arguing that MacKay has been dividing the party.
"You're so mad, Mr. O'Toole. Why are you so mad?" MacKay said in response, stating that O'Toole is "not the best person to unify our party."
Meanwhile, Lewis argued that growing the tent of the Conservative Party is one of her key strengths. In her closing remarks, she said she's the only candidate "that will bring real change."
"I'm the only candidate that can bring new voters in the large cities, women and youth," she said.
Overall, candidates were closely aligned in their support of increasing pipeline capacity and energy sector investments, and any mention of Huawei's participation in Canada's 5G network was met with a stern "no."
Candidates also jockeyed repeatedly for the support of Quebec, with O'Toole frequently pointing to the Quebec-specific plan in his platform, and all speaking in favour of language rights when the question arose. Sloan specifically noted in his concluding remarks that his French improved greatly from the beginning of the leadership race -- noting that this is a testimony to his commitment towards leading the nation.
MacKay also spoke multiple times about the Quebec-based politicians who are rooting for his campaign.
The French-language debate would likely have garnered more viewers in Quebec than in the rest of Canada -- and the province is proving to be a key battleground in the Conservative leadership race, as contenders vie for the hearts and minds of the 78 ridings held in la belle province.
In the Conservative leadership race, each riding represents 100 points. That means Quebec carries 7,800 points out of a potential 33,800 -- making the province’s dense concentration of votes a highly coveted commodity among leadership hopefuls.
Despite the rocky performances and French-language stumbles, the candidates will get to take a crack at winning over English-speaking Canada on Thursday, when the second debate takes place at 7 p.m. ET.