Liberal leadership debate today

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.

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