OTTAWA — Candidates for leadership of the federal Conservative party went four rounds Friday in a debate aimed at providing an opportunity for a deep dive into policy.
But the cut-and-thrust of politics remained on display even as the format of having 14 people on stage at once was dissolved into smaller groups of candidates debating specific policy themes, one group at a time.
The debate at the Manning Conference saw the contenders appear before a crowd of the conservative movement's most ardent advocates and activists, self-described political junkies eager to shell out the cash to spend a weekend debating ideology and brushing up on political marketing tactics.
So when Deepak Obhrai lashed out at Kevin O'Leary's apparent lack of knowledge over how transfer payments are doled out to the provinces — O'Leary threatened to cut them for any province with a carbon tax — raucous cheering ensured.
"Mr. O'Leary, you need to know the Constitution of Canada," Obhrai said.
And equally raucous boos greeted candidate Michael Chong's spirited defence of a carbon tax as the way forward for environment policy, a nearly heretical point of view within party circles.
Maxime Bernier's position on ending supply management — another sacred policy position for Tories — drew fire his way too.
Lisa Raitt said she felt Bernier hadn't thought it through and the impact it would actually have on consumers and farmers.
"You don't know the math associated with your own economic plan," said Raitt.
Unlike the official debates organized by the party, or the informal ones that have been organized by MPs and riding associations, the Manning conference presented candidates the chance to woo the party's thinkers and influencers from across the country in the hopes they'll fan out to spread their message.
Proving their conservative credentials was key and O'Leary — who many have grumbled isn't a true conservative — made sure to invoke the name of a conservative many hold dear, Sir John A. Macdonald. He likened the railways built by Canada's first prime minister to the pipelines of today.
But O'Leary took punches for how much time he's spent outside the country; members of Raitt's team paraded a person in an Uncle Sam outfit with a massive O'Leary cardboard face around the lobby ahead of the debate.
Some conference delegates remarked afterwards how while the other contenders were chatting amongst themselves before and during the debate, none interacted with O'Leary himself.
Conservatives at the conference aren't the ones he wants backing him anyway, suggested delegate Jacob Rabinowitz.
"He needs to bring people in to the party to win, he's not going to pick up or steal anyone's support here," Rabinowitz said.
Delegate Alexandra Rosenfeld agreed. While she said she was most impressed by Bernier's economic policies, O'Leary will remain a force in the race no matter what.
"He's going to be a contender because he is so famous," she said.
O'Leary has long said he's aware people are scouring thousands of hours of footage from his time on reality television looking for clips that could be used against him, and one surfaced Friday — a 2013 episode of the show Dragons Den where a company was making a pitch for investment in their jeans.
O'Leary grabbed the buttocks of one of the models and was asked by reporters on Friday whether that was an appropriate move and whether the women had given permission.
"I honestly don't remember but I'm sure she wasn't offended," O'Leary replied.
A news story from the time the episode aired said the judges had asked the company if touching the models would be OK.
O'Leary wasn't the only focus for criticism.
In a group made up of Erin O'Toole, Chris Alexander, Andrew Saxton and Kellie Leitch, Leitch became the target.
While her policies on screening would-be immigrants for "Canadian values" have been a central and controversial part of the leadership contest, her rivals pounced during a debate on health policy.
O'Toole pressed her on why she hadn't put out a plan, Leitch replied that she's done a ton of research on the issue and that her experience at business school and as a physician make her uniquely qualified to put forward ideas.
"I think the problems are not too difficult for mere mortals to understand," he said, to cheers.
The candidates will debate again next week at a party-organized event in Edmonton.
Party members vote for the next leader in May.