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Conservative leadership candidates square off in their first debate

Five of the six Conservative leadership candidates will be on stage tonight for the first debate of this election, a match-up organized by the conservative think-tank Canada Strong and Free Network.

That network — previously known as the Manning Center after its founder, former Reform Party leader Preston Manning — is offering a stage and an hour and 30 minutes to the candidates to share their visions for the party and the country.

The debate starts at 5:30 p.m. ET. CBCNews.ca will carry it live.

The debate is just one of the events planned for the network’s annual conference — a three-day summit where right-leaning academics, journalists and politicians will gather to discuss the state of conservatism in Canada and election strategies.

The Conservative Party finalized its list of “verified” leadership candidates on Monday, whittling down a larger list to six people who will appear on the final ballot when party members cast their ballots in September.

The party’s Leadership Election Organizing Committee (LEOC) has given Conservative MPs Scott Aitchison, Leslyn Lewis and Pierre Poilievre, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, former Quebec premier Jean Charest and Independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber the green light to run.

A cowboy hat is left inside an empty ballroom at the Conservative national convention in Halifax on Saturday, August 25, 2018. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The Canada Strong and Free Network extended invitations only to those candidates verified by the party. All of them, with the exception of Brown, will be on stage tonight. Brown declined to attend the event.

Manning himself has declined to endorse any particular candidate in this race but, in a memo to all campaigns sent last week, he urged the contenders to drop their personal attacks to avoid tarnishing the Conservative brand among voters and exacerbating existing cleavages within the party.

Manning, an elder statesman in conservative circles, said he fears such attacks will “deepen divisions within the federal conservative camp” — something he called the “Achilles heel of the party for some time.”

Conservative leadership candidates Pierre Poilievre (top left), Leslyn Lewis (top center), Jean Charest (top right), Roman Baber (bottom left), Patrick Brown (bottom center) and Scott Aitchison. (Blair Gable/Reuters; Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press; Justin Tang/The Canadian Press; The Canadian Press; Chris Young/The Canadian Press; Scott Aitchison)

The party grappled with blowback from some party members this week after it left two socially conservative candidates — Saskatchewan businessman Joseph Bourgault and BC consultant Grant Abraham — off its list of approved candidates. Another prospective candidate, Toronto lawyer Joel Etienne, also didn’t make the cut.

The three candidates all said they submitted the required 500 signatures and $300,000 in donations by the April 29 deadline.

There have been claims that all three men received unfair treatment. The anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition accused the party of trying to cheat and “cancel” abortion activists by rejecting Bourgault and Abraham.

But a leaked document obtained by CBC News shows party officials insist the applicants were not rejected because of their political views.

“No one — not a single candidate — was disallowed because of their views or positions on any issue,” reads the report by Ian Brodie, chair of LEOC.

In that report, Brodie refers to some of the media stories about why candidates were rejected as “sensationalistic and even misleading.”

Brodie wrote the candidates in question were rejected because of problems with their finances or the signatures they collected. He cited examples of candidates accidentally submitting duplicates and problems with the legal cap on how much one person can donate to a candidate.

While the party will be following up with the candidates who didn’t make the cut to explain where they fell short, they will not be speaking about the details to the media, he wrote.

“My former boss, Stephen Harper, taught me that the easiest way for a Conservative to get into the news is to attack another Conservative,” Brodie wrote.

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