09/21/2013 04:16 EDT | Updated 11/21/2013 05:12 EST

Manitoba Liberal leadership hopefuls square off in 1st debate of campaign

PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man. - The uphill battle facing the Manitoba Liberal Party was evident Saturday as some 45 people attended the party's first leadership debate in a largely empty auditorium.

Rana Bokhari and Dougald Lamont — the two official candidates so far — fielded questions on everything from the economy to marijuana during the 90-minute contest, and largely agreed with each other.

They also agreed when one audience member stood up and said the party needs to focus less on policy and more on rebuilding from its present state in the wilderness of provincial politics. The Liberals hold just one of the 57 legislature seats and garnered 7.5 per cent of the popular vote in the 2011 election.

"That frustration that you're feeling right now — that's why I'm here today. I feel it too," Bokhari told the man.

"You have to engage people, you have to mobilize people."

Lamont pointed to the fact that Liberal membership numbers have risen in recent months — by about 40 per cent to 1,200 according to party officials — partly as a result of the leadership contest. The NDP government's popularity is dropping after 14 years in power, and the Progressive Conservatives are too far right, Lamont said.

"We're going out and we're talking to people who are fed up with the NDP and they do not want to go to the PCs. They are signing up with us."

Bokhari, a 35-year-old lawyer, and Lamont, a 44-year-old small business owner, offer a generational change in Manitoba politics. They are vying to replace Jon Gerrard, who like the leaders of the New Democratic Party and Progressive Conservatives, is a baby-boomer.

Lamont pressed his plan to eliminate the province's payroll tax as a way to boost the economy and help job growth. Creating good opportunities for young people is a way the Liberals can differentiate themselves from the other parties, he said.

Bokhari said she would offer tax incentives to companies to set up in rural areas.

Asked about education, both candidates said they would better fund schools and early childhood education.

On marijuana, Bokhari said she supports regulating and taxing pot in order to cut out organized crime. Lamont said if the federal government decides to legalize pot, it should be well-regulated with a minimum age, and police officers should be able to test drivers for impairment.

On the harmonized sales tax, both candidates said they were leery of increasing consumption taxes on low-income earners, but left the door open to the tax, pending public consultations, as a way to help businesses cut costs. Manitoba is one of the few provinces that have not merged their sales taxes with the GST.

A third leadership candidate, Bob Axworthy, had not completed his nomination paperwork and was not allowed to take part in the debate. He sat in the audience Saturday.

The Liberals have scheduled a second debate for Oct. 3. The party will elect a new leader Oct. 26 via a one-member, one-vote system.