There was something like the whiff of cordite lingering after the nine Liberal leadership contenders left the Mississauga, Ont., debate stage Saturday. The spirited attack on front-runner Justin Trudeau as a suave, young upstart with neither the common touch nor the credentials to lead a country should cause Canadians to sit up and watch again.
Martha Hall Findlay looked like a clumsy thug in demanding to know how Mr. Trudeau, a rich man of privileged pedigree, could talk about the dilemma of Canada's middle-class, struggling to keep up as the one-per-centers continue to amass wealth and the inequality gap grows. Marc Garneau, no friend to Mr. Trudeau, however, put Ms. Hall Findley in her place, reminding Liberals they should not choose on the basis of economic status but on the substance of the man or woman who would be their next leader.
Mr. Garneau, former military officer, astronaut and president of the Canadian Space Agency, believes Mr. Trudeau doesn't have the resumé for the job. He has harangued the former high-school teacher to put a little meat on his plan for the party and the country.
There some truth in that but Mr. Trudeau remains the clear favourite in this race. He has more caucus endorsements and has raised more money in the campaign than the other eight contenders combined. His website is slick, and seeks the opinions of the young voters, asking them to help craft a new agenda for the country. Yet, like others on the stage, he failed to show the party would distinguish itself in the national political psyche.
The Liberals are having a hard time winning Canadian hearts back from the NDP. Some of the talk in the debate revealed interesting details of the candidates' platforms but there was little to show how the once-natural governing party of Canada would prove itself the better option for voters in the next general election. Ms. Hall Findlay's cri de coeur for a classless society was a case in point: She castigated her opponents for defending the middle class as the economic backbone of the country, and showed she would be just as comfortable raising a placard at an NDP convention.
The fireworks Saturday suggest the run-up to the April 14 leadership selection may become more than a sleepy coronation of a former prime minister's son. Mr. Trudeau looked ill-prepared for the rough stuff. After mustering his best defence -- I'll use my privileged upbringing to fight for Canada -- he stormed off the stage in high dudgeon.
It seems the Liberals candidates are readying to fight for a job that at one time was all but guaranteed to carry them into the office of prime minister. The guarantee is no more, but the willingness to scrap for a shot at the top is a good sign from a party that has seemed moribund until now.