VANCOUVER - Federal Liberals get their first chance today to directly compare and contrast the nine candidates promising to lead their once-mighty party out of the political wilderness.
The four women and five men will square off this afternoon in Vancouver in the first of five leadership debates to be held across the country.
There's a lot potentially at stake for each of the candidates but the unwieldy number of contenders limits the ability of any to shine.
Each will have only about 10 minutes, in total, during the two-hour event in which to make their mark.
To the extent that any punches are thrown, they'll likely be aimed almost exclusively at prohibitive favourite Justin Trudeau as rivals attempt to narrow his presumed, enormous lead.
The Montreal MP will be under pressure to demonstrate that he deserves the mantle of front-runner, deflecting any jabs with aplomb, avoiding any serious stumbles and displaying depth and substance, as well as his undisputed charm.
For rival contenders with relatively high profiles — MPs Marc Garneau and Joyce Murray, former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon and former MP Martha Hall Findlay — the task is twofold: put paid to the perception that Trudeau is unstoppable and position themselves as the best alternative.
For the clutch of lesser-known, never-elected candidates — Toronto lawyers George Takach and Deborah Coyne, Ottawa lawyer David Bertschi and retired military officer Karen McCrimmon — the debate offers their best chance to date to demonstrate that they should be considered serious contenders.
Party officials say the first debate is sold out, with some 800 Liberals paying $20 a pop for the privilege of attending. Thousands more are expected to tune in online or by television.
Each candidate is to make brief opening and closing statements. The bulk of the two hours will be taken up by a series of three-way debates in which candidates respond to 14 questions, including 12 pre-selected questions from audience members.
Topics include foreign ownership, aboriginal affairs, the environment, social housing, Pacific Rim trade and electoral co-operation.
The western tilt to the subject matters, the inclusion of electoral co-operation and a hometown audience may work to the advantage of Vancouver MP Murray. She's the only western candidate in the race and the only one to advocate one-time co-operation among Liberals, New Democrats and Greens to ensure defeat of the Conservatives in the next election.
Liberal members and supporters are to vote by phone and online for their next leader throughout the week of April 7, with the winner to be announced on April 14.
The dynamic of today's first debate could well be influenced by the fact that Liberals will vote by preferential ballot, marking their first, second, third and subsequent choices. When a voter's first choice is knocked off the ballot, their second choice is counted, and so on, until one candidate emerges with more than 50 per cent.
Anyone hoping to make a come-from-behind win will have to gain support from rival candidates as they drop off the ballot. As a result, none of the dark horses is likely to say anything during the debate to alienate supporters of their fellow long-shots.
However, they could theoretically take shots at Trudeau with impunity. As the front-runner, his supporters' second and third choices are never likely to be counted so it matters little if they're angered by attacks on their main man.
Even so, Trudeau's challengers are likely to show restraint, conscious that many Liberals would never forgive a candidate who launched a no-holds-barred assault on the probable winner, thereby handing the Conservatives devastating fodder for their next wave of attack ads.
Liberals haven't forgotten that the Tories used footage from the 2006 Liberal leadership debates to skewer the winner of that contest, Stephane Dion.