NEWS
04/26/2017 15:18 EDT | Updated 04/26/2017 15:41 EDT

As front-runner quits, remaining Conservative candidates battle it out

OTTAWA — The final Conservative leadership debate is up and running with candidates discussing why they want the job hours after the presumed front-runner has now walked away.

Wednesday night's event in Toronto was supposed to be a big political spectacle in its own right, with the May 27 climax looming on the calendar.

But then Kevin O'Leary went and quit the race just hours before, a fact that drew sustained applause from the debate audience when it was announced by the moderator.

"Today, the race just got real," said candidate Erin O'Toole. "Elvis has left the building."

O'Leary threw his support behind Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, known for his libertarian bent and self-proclaimed "Mad Max" nickname.

But he's also number one in the polls and his competitors turned on him fast.

And his competitors turned on him fast.

Michael Chong called his policies "extreme," Andrew Scheer suggested they would divide the party, and Lisa Raitt called them "simplistic."

The pile-on was most profound on Bernier's bedrock issue of abolishing supply management, an issue that's leapt into the national spotlight thanks to catching the attention of U.S. President Donald Trump.

With supply management key to the livelihoods on many farmers, the other 12 candidates are in favour of it, but Bernier said he doesn't understand why.

"It is a little bit bizarre that I am the only one who promotes more freedom and all the other candidates want to promote a policy that was brought in by Pierre Elliot Trudeau?"

Upward of 250,000 Conservative party members are eligible to vote for the next leader and the winner be declared on May 27.