WINNIPEG - It was billed as a debate, but the two plush chairs on stage made it clear Saturday's Liberal leadership event would not be your typical candidates' battle.
The nine contenders never squared off against each other. Instead, they sat down, one by one, with a moderator — Harvey Locke, who ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals in the recent federal byelection in Calgary Centre — and answered questions for 11 minutes each in front of 400 Liberal faithful.
In an effort to let party members get more familiar with the candidates, Locke's questions ranged from serious issues such as crime and rural development to some personal revelations. Marc Garneau, for example, loves to do household chores.
"I love to vacuum. There is nothing more satisfying than sucking up a dust buffalo with a vacuum cleaner," Garneau said when Locke asked him to reveal something personal about himself.
The candidates reiterated their positions on issues such as justice — more prevention, less emphasis on prison-building — and marijuana — Joyce Murray and George Takach are in favour of legalization.
"To me, it's all about stopping the violence, Takach said. "When you have a black market it creates a wonderful haven for criminals that we have to stop."
The candidates were unanimous in criticizing the Conservative government's tough-on-crime agenda. But Martha Hall-Findlay said Liberals have to shoulder some blame for voting in favour of some of the Conservative bills.
"We had these crime bills coming up for us to vote on and we were saying, 'We know they're wrong ... we know we need to focus on prevention, but, well, we don't want to look like we're soft on crime,'" Findlay said.
Justin Trudeau, the presumptive front-runner who raised almost $600,000 in the first three months of the race, touted community policing and youth sports as ways to prevent kids from falling into trouble with the law.
The format — closer to that of a talk show than a political debate — met with mixed reviews in the audience. Brent Neill, a longtime Winnipeg Liberal who is backing Joyce Murray, said the event was dull.
"It's a really dry format in terms of no real interaction between the candidates," he said. "It's a really safe format so the frontrunner can't make a mistake or have anyone else question them."
But some liked the fact that all the candidates were given 11 consecutive minutes in the spotlight.
"There was equal time for everyone and they were allowed to get their views out with the same questions, but I do think that it probably wasn't the best at engagement," said Jeff Kovalik-Plouffe, who hadn't yet decided which candidate to support.
A small group of Idle No More protesters tried to disrupt the event early on. One of them banged a drum and shouted but the small group was quickly taken outside by security.
The group were upset that aboriginal issues were not on the agenda for the event, although the were discussed by candidates.
The Liberals are holding other debates that will allow candidates to challenge each other. The party will pick its new leader April 14 in Ottawa.