Grit leadership contenders take the stage

Justin Trudeau used his final sales pitch of the Liberal leadership race Saturday to pre-empt some of the Conservative attacks that are likely coming should he win, as expected.

The front-runner tackled head-on those who sneer that he's inexperienced, that his resume is light and that his popularity is fleeting, based on nostalgia for his late father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

"There are those who ask me: 'What makes you think you can take this on?'" Trudeau told cheering supporters at a "national showcase" aimed at giving the six leadership contenders a last chance to impress Liberals before they begin voting Sunday for their next leader.

"To them, I say this. I have lived and breathed every square kilometre of this country from the day I was born ... I have been open to Canadians my entire life and, because of that, I have a strong sense of this country, where it has been, where it is and where Canadians want it to go."

The 41-year-old Montreal MP noted that Saturday marked the 45th anniversary of his father being chosen to lead the Liberal party.

Former Toronto MP Martha Hall Findlay indirectly alluded to Trudeau's lack of experience and gravitas by asking Liberals to imagine which candidate would be best equipped to sit down with international leaders or square off against Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in televised debates during the next election.

"You know that we will need someone on that stage who is experienced, clear, firm, decisive, no-nonsense and tough," Hall Findlay said, casting herself as a "business conscious, market-oriented" Liberal who is "substantive, experienced, bold, tough."

The showcase was replete with chanting supporters, thunder sticks, placards and all the usual paraphernalia of a political convention, although long-shot contenders had a tough time garnering more than a smattering of applause in a cavernous hall at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Joyce Murray, who is widely thought to be running second, pitched her plan for one-time electoral co-operation among progressive parties in the 2015 election to ensure defeat of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, a proposal which has drawn the fire of her rivals, but helped the Vancouver MP stand out and gain support from grassroots and online advocacy groups.

She likened her idea to hockey players who come together to win gold for Canada during the Olympics but then return to their various teams and resume being fierce competitors.

"This is not a merger, this is not a coalition, not a joint party candidacy," she told the crowd, trying to dispel doubts. "Our party's distinct Liberal values and Liberal identity will be honoured and protected."

Toronto lawyer Deborah Coyne, who has openly conceded she can't win, also dumped on Murray's co-operation idea as an unprincipled bid to regain power without earning it.

"As long as Liberals look for short-cuts, we are doomed to wander in the wilderness," she said.

Coyne, meanwhile, revealed what may have been the real motivation behind her long-shot leadership bid, announcing that she intends to seek a nomination to run in the next election and looks forward to being part of the Liberal team.

"Several new ridings are being created in the Toronto area and I think you will agree with me that we should have strong women candidates contest these ridings," she told the crowd.

Retired military officer Karen McCrimmon, another failed election candidate who may be hoping to raise her profile before trying again to win a seat in the House of Commons, was escorted to the stage by a lone bagpiper.

Much like a motivational speaker, she strode back and forth across the stage in a white pant suit as she urged Liberals to follow their hearts.

Speaking without notes, McCrimmon acknowledged she often wondered if she was "crazy" to have launched her leadership bid. But she said she followed her heart and urged Liberals to follow her example.

"The Liberal party has to stop listening to the naysayers," she said.

Former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon was the last to speak at the four-hour showcase, which also featured a tribute to interim leader Bob Rae. Rae has held down the fort since the Liberals were reduced to third-party rubble in the May 2011 election.

Although each camp was allotted 100 tickets for the event, Cauchon appeared to have brought only a handful of supporters with him. By the time he took the stage, the crowd had begun to trickle out.

Still, he gamely insisted he's the best choice to stand up to Harper.

"I'm not afraid of the attack ads," Cauchon asserted.

"If I become leader of our party, Stephen Harper, I'm going to take you on and Canadians are going to bring you down. Trust me."

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