Sparks flew at the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership debate in Ottawa Wednesday — with Doug Ford in the thick of most of it.
Ford used the second and final debate in the six-week race to take pointed shots at former MPP Christine Elliott, an old family friend, and lawyer Caroline Mulroney. But the former Toronto city councillor kept his powder dry when it came to anti-sex-ed activist Tanya Granic Allen.
For 90 minutes, contenders fielded questions on health care, hydro rates, and ousted leader Patrick Brown, whose resignation in January amid sexual misconduct allegations instigated the race late in the election cycle. The debate was hosted by HuffPost Canada's Althia Raj.
Each candidate opposed a provincial carbon tax and the Ontario Liberal cap-and-trade program, and said they would fight the federal government's demands on provinces to price pollution. But they had little to say about how they would fill the multi-billion revenue hole that would be left by scrapping the cap-and-trade program, promising to make up the difference by ending wasteful spending and finding efficiencies.
Things heated up almost an hour into the debate when Ford targeted Elliott with an unprovoked jab, saying "people want to know which Christine they're going to get."
'Which one is it?'
Ford said Elliott was actually in favour of the Liberals' 2015 revisions to the sex-ed curriculum and a carbon tax, but is now singing a different tune. And he implied Elliott's decision to accept the role of Ontario's patient ombudsman in 2016 disqualified her from fighting Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne in June's provincial election.
"Are they going to get the Christine that wants to replace Kathleen Wynne or are we going to get the Christine that took a $220,000 job, a political appointment, from Kathleen Wynne," Ford said. "Which one is it?"
Though she did not raise the issue on stage, Mulroney has also targeted Elliott in recent days for taking the non-partisan role after she left provincial politics, accusing her of "collecting paycheques from Kathleen Wynne." The sharpened focus on Elliott has left some pundits to suggest she may be seen as the one to beat.
Elliott shot back that she has always opposed carbon taxes and has been consistent on sex-ed. She said that she would be prepared to revisit the curriculum because parents weren't consulted enough.
"Don't make up stories, Doug. Come on," Elliott said. "You can check my record. My record says that I had the same view in 2015 as I have now."
You're an insider. Insider.Doug Ford to Christine Elliott
On her ombudsman role, Elliott said she was chosen for the job over several hundred applicants by an independent panel not associated with the Wynne government.
"I'm very proud to have served as patient ombudsman and I don't have anything to apologize to you for," she said.
"You're an insider. Insider," Ford said.
"I think not, Doug," she said.
'Hold on, Caroline'
Mulroney and Ford had their own heated exchange a little later while discussing party nomination issues that have dogged the party and upset members of the grassroots. Nominations in two ridings have already been overturned by the party brass.
Ford said he could recall being at a nomination meeting in Scarborough where the lights went out and, when they came on minutes later, "people were running around with ballots in their hands." Ford also said he's heard stories of ballot stuffing in local races.
Mulroney said she was "disturbed" Ford saw ballot stuffing and "didn't do anything about it."
"Hold on, Caroline," Ford interjected. "Hold on!"
"I'm just following what you said," Mulroney said.
Ford said he called the leader and party president over the matter, but added Mulroney's criticism was "rich" considering that she was a star candidate who was "parachuted" in to run in York-Simcoe.
"Matter of fact, maybe we should reopen your nomination and get more competitors in there," he said.
Mulroney hit back that Ford isn't even nominated to run for the party and was pursuing a different political job before the PC leadership race opened up.
"I think it's a bit rich because a month ago you wanted to be mayor of Toronto," she said.
Caroline, up until a month ago, you were Patrick Brown's star candidate.Tanya Granic Allen
Mulroney has consistently pointed out she is the only leadership hopeful who was already committed to running for the Ontario Tories this spring before the top job became available.
"We have so much to do and we need a leader who is committed to this," she said.
Granic Allen, who repeatedly pushed rivals to reopen nomination contests where there had been allegations of interference or bullying, gave an assist to Ford.
"Caroline, up until a month ago, you were Patrick Brown's star candidate," Granic Allen added, sparking some applause.
"And you were happy to be his star candidate. And you sat and you said nothing while all that corruption was going on, while candidates were being bullied, while members were being stripped of their membership."
Elliott jumped in to say she's been a PC member for over 25 years and the only person on stage to serve in Queen's Park.
"I think it's really important that we remember why we're all here," she said. "We all have to come together when this is all over because the star target here is Kathleen Wynne, not each other."
More from HuffPost Canada:
PC members will choose their next leader by ranking candidates by order of preference on an electronic ballot. If no candidate wins 50 per cent on the first ballot, the contender with the fewest votes is eliminated and the second choices of his or her supporters are tallied. The process repeats until someone wins a clear majority.
Voting in the race begins Friday. The party's new leader will be announced March 10.
With a file from The Canadian Press