Ontario Liberal leadership hopefuls gather for first debate



INGERSOLL, Ont. -- Amid a noisy crowd of protesters outside, seven Liberals debated in small-town southwestern Ontario for the right to replace Dalton McGuinty as the leader of the provincial Grits and -- for a short time, at least -- as premier.

Harinder Takhar, Sandra Pupatello, Charles Sousa, Gerard Kennedy, Eric Hoskins, Kathleen Wynne and Glen Murray spoke to the issues of health care, employment and the difficult economy in the region-- and each outlined why he or she is the best person for the job.

While they all staunchly defended the record of Health Minister Deb Matthews, some acknowledged that the party needs to win back the respect of Ontario voters.

"As a party, we need to do better," Sousa said in his opening remarks. "Not all good ideas come from the premier's office."

Murray stressed that the Liberals need to better represent the middle class.

Pupatello said Ontarians need more jobs and the security that jobs bring.

Takhar said the party needs to offer funding to help rural Ontario market its products to the world.

Some candidates also defended the party's controversial eHealth program -- which had little to show for the $1 billion spent on it -- saying that it's the future of health care in the province.

There were no fireworks among the seven, nor were there any defining moments at this first of five scheduled debates. Others will take place in Thunder Bay (Dec. 9), Ottawa (Dec. 18), Durham Region (Jan. 6) and Toronto (Jan. 9), culminating in a leadership convention in Toronto on the weekend of Jan. 25.

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