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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 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET at the Edmonton Convention Centre.

You can watch special live coverage of the event beginning at 5 p.m. ET on this page, on CBC News Network or on CBC Gem.

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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.

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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.

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

On Wednesday morning, Baber released a statement promising to scrap Canada’s equalization program and replace it with a tax cut should he become prime minister. 

“Equalization rewards provinces for refusing to develop their natural resources and encourages dependency. Together with our provincial partners, we will turn Canada into a natural resource superpower,” Baber said in the statement.

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 …”

No one will be allowed to mention the name of other candidates or any political party leader during this section.

The debate will then move to what organizers are calling “rapid fire” and “lightning round” sections, in which candidates will be asked the same questions simultaneously and must reply yes or no.

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Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown will appear alongside his leadership rivals for the first time tonight after turning down an invitation to an unofficial debate last week. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

In the lightning round, candidates will have 15 seconds to respond to questions posed by moderator Tom Clark, a veteran former political journalist.

The debate will then move on to what could be its most dramatic and confrontational section — one which will see the moderator direct questions to individual candidates based on a draw.

During this section, each candidate selected for a question will be allowed to choose another candidate for a one-on-one debate.

Those exchanges will later be expanded to include other candidates on stage. They’ll be asked to weigh in using a “rebuttal paddle,” which can only be used a limited number of times.

The debate will conclude with candidates delivering closing remarks explaining why they want to lead the Conservatives.

Candidates to face off for at least one more debate 

Candidates will meet again on May 25 in Montreal for a French-language debate before resuming campaigns that will run for nearly the entire summer.

No further debates are scheduled, although the party says it is reserving the right to organize a third debate in late August.

Conservative members will vote for their third permanent leader of the past five years at a convention on Sept. 10.

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