04/11/2015 11:35 EDT | Updated 06/11/2015 05:59 EDT

Patrick Brown, Christine Elliott Hold First Head-To-Head Debate

TORONTO - Ontario's Progressive Conservative party is a "toxic brand" that turns off voters, women and young people in particular, deputy leader Christine Elliott said Saturday.

"Right now, we all know our party is a toxic brand. There's a lot of people who don't even want to hear what we as PCs have to say," Elliott admitted in her closing statement after a debate against her only remaining leadership rival, Patrick Brown, the Barrie MP.

"We need to change the direction and tone of our party in order to win, because right now we're not appealing to a lot of women. There's a huge gender gap," she told the crowd at the Lakeshore Cinema in Tecumseh, near Windsor, Ont.

"It's apparently not cool to be a PC member on a college or university campus."

Brown said the Tories lost four consecutive elections with policies like cutting 100,000 public sector jobs and faith-based funding because the party did not listen to members and instead had campaign ideas foisted on them by PC headquarters.

"That top-down group that ran Queen's Park did not value membership," Brown said. "That establishment is doing everything possible to make sure I don't win this leadership, but you know what, the grassroots wants their party back."

The field to become leader of the once powerful Progressive Conservatives, and the province's Official Opposition, narrowed to just two Thursday when London-area MPP Monte McNaughton pulled out and threw his support to Brown, a 36-year-old three-term federal backbencher.

There were virtually no differences between the two as they responded to a series of questions on job losses, the Green Energy Act, electricity prices and a provincial pension plan, standing side by side on stage in front of microphone stands, with no podiums.

Brown says now it's a clear choice between his fresh "reset" for the PCs, or more of the "same old, same old" from the party establishment that supports Elliott, the backroom strategists that he says are to blame for their last four election losses.

Elliott, 59, the widow of former finance minister Jim Flaherty, calls Brown an "untested candidate" and a career politician who she says represents the much less progressive side of the party, especially on social issues.

There had been five candidates in the leadership race, but North Bay MPP Vic Fedeli and Ottawa-area MPP Lisa MacLeod both withdrew earlier and threw their support behind Elliott.

Elliott, who represents Whitby-Oshawa in the legislature and is supported by most of the Progressive Conservative caucus, is making her second run for the leadership after losing to Tim Hudak in 2009.

PC members will vote May 3 and 7 for a leader to replace Hudak, who resigned after the Conservatives lost the election last June.

Brown sold over 41,000 PC memberships, while the Elliott campaign said it sold about 34,000, but insisted her support was much more broadly based than his.

When the votes are counted May 9, each of the 107 ridings will be given a total of 100 points, so where memberships were sold could be just as important as how many.

(With files from AM800 Windsor)

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