NDP leadership hopefuls gathered in Winnipeg on Sunday to debate how best to broaden the party's appeal to win more voter support west of Ontario.
With only three members of Parliament elected from the Prairies, it is a question the party will have to grapple with after it elects a new leader at a convention in Toronto on March 24.
Nathan Cullen said the way to do that was to hold joint nomination meetings with the Liberals and the Greens in ridings currently held by the Conservatives.
"The NDP can win joint nomination meetings in Brandon, Winnipeg, Calgary, Saskatoon and Regina," Cullen said.
Brian Topp was the first to reject Cullen's proposal, calling it "a gadget."
"I just don't think it's going to work. At the end of the day, we would be taking the choice from New Democrats away riding by riding," Topp said.
Paul Dewar also disagreed with Cullen, calling his idea "a distraction" from "the urgent" work at hand.
"We have to organize our grassroots, not the Liberal grassroots," Dewar said.
The debate, the fourth held to date, was moderated by Richard Cloutier, news editor at CJOB, a talk radio station in Winnipeg. Cloutier said he wanted to see candidates show either "distinction, omission or policy disagreement" in their answers.
Candidates gave him just that in the candidate-to-candidate round.
Frontrunners are challenged
Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair challenged Dewar's "Organizing for the next 70" plan, an idea the Ottawa MP said he would put into action in the first 100 days of being elected leader to put the party on the path to majority.
"I really find you are limiting yourself with this notion that somehow our next campaign should be limited to 70 seats," Mulcair said. "If we had done that in Quebec, we wouldn't have created the orange wave."
Dewar replied his plan was "to win another 70 seats to form a majority government," not to limit their wins to 70 seats.
The MP from Ottawa then challenged Peggy Nash on the consistency of the Toronto MP's remarks on corporate taxes.
In an interview that aired Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Nash told host Evan Solomon "a Peggy Nash government would review corporate taxes," but she did not say she would raise them.
Dewar said Nash had committed to raising corporate taxes in the past and wanted her to clarify whether her position had changed.
"I am in favour of raising corporate taxes, but want to make sure we review the numbers," Nash told reporters later in Winnipeg.
Martin Singh, the unelected pharmacist from Nova Scotia, once again challenged Topp, the party's veteran strategist, on what he called the "disastrous" impact his tax policies would have on charities.
Singh challenged Topp, asking "how can you be qualified to lead us when your policies are so poorly thought out."
"Arguing like that is to use a wedge issue," Topp fired back.
Manitoba MP Niki Ashton challenged Mulcair, a veteran politician, to withdraw comments he had made about their party.
Mulcair recently spoke of the need for the NDP to espouse a broader message by going beyond some of the "boilerplate language" of social democracy, comments Ashton deemed " very critical."
Mulcair said, he made a call to to the late Jack Layton in 2007 "asking him not to let any of this boilerplate into Quebec anymore because there was no way we would ever win a single seat in the province."
"We wanted to connect and unite all progressive forces in Quebec, and that's exactly what we did," Mulcair said.
Ashton later tried to challenge Mulcair on his position on bringing back the now defunct long-gun registry, even if the provincial NDP in Manitoba wanted nothing to do with it.
"I will not be part of removing an element of public protection," the Quebec MP replied.
Nash then challenged Topp on comments he made publicly in the last two weeks.
In an interview with CBC's Evan Solomon, Topp said if were elected NDP leader, he would ask a Quebec MP to step down so that he could run in a byelection.
What if no Quebec MP was willing to step down and offer him his seat? Nash asked Topp.
Topp rejected the idea "that if you're not an MP you don't have the right to run for leader. That hasn't been the tradition of our party."
Otherwise, "the last two leaders of the federal NDP [referring to Layton and Alexa McDonough] couldn't be elected," Topp said.
Two more debates to come
The seven candidates vying for the leadership of the NDP are Niki Ashton, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Thomas Mulcair, Peggy Nash, Martin Singh and Brian Topp.
The next debate will be all-French, in Montreal on March 4, followed by a final debate on March 11 in Vancouver.
The NDP's membership has reached a record high of 128,351 members, with the bulk residing in British Columbia and Ontario.
A new party leader will be announced at a convention in Toronto on March 23-24, 2012.
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