Conservative leadership candidates set to clash tonight in first official debate

The six candidates vying to lead the Conservative Party of Canada will meet tonight for the first official debate of the leadership race — an event that promises a dramatic clash of ideologies that could shape the Conservatives’ chances in the next federal election.

The event is set to run from 8 pm to 10 pm ET at the Edmonton Convention Centre.

You can watch special live coverage of the event beginning at 5 pm ET on this page.

What to expect

Canadians saw a preview of tonight’s event last week when five of the six candidates took part in a debate in Ottawa hosted by the Canada Strong and Free Network. The debate was unofficial in the sense that it was not organized by the Conservative Party’s own leadership committee.

That debate quickly turned into an unusually aggressive grudge match marked by personal attacks, shouting and interruptions.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre badgered former Quebec premier Jean Charest over his past lobbying work for Chinese telecom giant Huawei and described him as a masquerading Liberal who likes to raise taxes.

Arguing that he’s the candidate best positioned to appeal voters in cities and suburbs, Charest reached back to the Conservatives’ ill-fated 2015 election proposal to establish a “barbaric cultural practices” tip line as evidence that the party has drifted out of touch with many Canadians.

Conservative leadership candidates Jean Charest and Pierre Poilievre focused their attention, and attacks, on each other during a debate last week in Ottawa. (Adrian Wild/The Canadian Press)

Melanie Paradis, a former senior staffer for outgoing leader Erin O’Toole, said she expects tonight to be a repeat of what she called the first “pointy-elbowed” debate.

“The teams didn’t see it as an error on their part. That was their plan and I think some of the teams will double down on that approach,” she told CBC News.

Two candidates — MP Leslyn Lewis and former Ontario MPP Roman Baber — are likely to again battle for position to the right of Poilievre by arguing they are best suited to defend the liberties and freedom of Canadians.

Lewis has accused Poilievre of not adequately supporting the anti-vaccine mandate trucker convoy that occupied much of downtown Ottawa this winter.

MP Scott Aitchison, a backbencher who last week called out candidates’ tendency to “yell and scream at each other,” may once again find himself appealing for calm and seriousness.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown — the only candidate to skip last week’s debate — will be on stage with other candidates for the first time tonight. Brown and Polievre have exchanged personal attacks during the campaign but have not yet met face-to-face.

Lightning rounds and extended one-on-one exchanges

The two-hour debate will feature five sections with distinct and, in some instances, rather complex rules.

In the opening round, candidates will deliver remarks of no longer than 45 seconds based on the prompt: “My vision for Canada is …”

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