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Liberal leadership hopefuls duke it out in debate that has Trudeau on defensive

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MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - Some of Justin Trudeau's rivals in the Liberal leadership race tried to knock the perceived front-runner off his stride during a debate as he was accused of being too privileged to understand middle-class problems.

One of the most aggressive exchanges Saturday came from former Ontario MP Martha Hall Findlay, who challenged Trudeau over his focus on the middle class.

She asked Trudeau what he knows about the middle class given his wealth, a challenge that drew some boos from the audience.

"You yourself have admitted that you do not belong to the middle class. I find it a little challenging to understand how you would understand the challenges facing middle (class) Canadians," Findlay said.

The remark comes amid some buzz about Trudeau's finances after an Ottawa newspaper this week obtained documents from Trudeau showing he has raked in big money on speaking tours while his inheritance sits at $1.2 million.

In the debate, Trudeau acknowledged his privileged background, but said all that matters is his commitment to Canadians.

"What is important for me is to put everything that I've received — like each of us wants to — in service of my community," Trudeau said to a loud cheer.

Findlay later told reporters her remarks weren't a shot at Trudeau, but rather meant to draw out the difference between her and Trudeau's campaign themes.

"My issue was not personal," Findlay said. "My issue was substance and experience."

"I don't think of Canada as a class society, I want us to talk about equality of opportunity."

"We want a leader in this party... who can sit at a table with (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and have a really strong discussion about the Euro zone, or with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin and talk about how we deal with natural gas deposits under the Arctic," Findlay said.

Trudeau was also pressed by rival Marc Garneau.The astronaut-turned-politician repeatedly grilled Trudeau on his qualifications for the party's top job, and chided him on for what Garneau called a lightweight campaign platform.

"What is it in your resume that qualifies you to be the future prime minister of Canada?" he asked Trudeau, returning to a line of attack Garneau has amplified in recent days.

Trudeau quickly responded, pointing to his positions on trade and post-secondary education — posted to his website hours before the debate — and his success winning back his Montreal riding from the Bloc Quebecois.

Trudeau also touched on his campaign staple of emphasizing his leadership qualities he says will rekindle the party's popularity with Canadians.

Trudeau then set his sights on Garneau, accusing him of being too tied up in detailed policy announcements instead of making inroads with voters.

"You can’t lead from a podium and a press conference, you can’t win over Canadians with a five-point plan," Trudeau said.

"You have to connect with them."

The two-hour debate saw a few flare-ups between the nine candidates on issues including electoral reform, trade and energy development, while there was much agreement on other topics, including a criticism of the Conservative government's immigration policies.

Two remaining leadership debates are scheduled for Halifax and Montreal before party members elect a new leader in April.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the debate was in Toronto

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