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Trudeau's leadership credentials attacked during Liberal debate

Justin Trudeau takes part in the Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Saturday, February 16, 2103.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Some of Justin Trudeau's rivals in the Liberal leadership race tried to knock the perceived front-runner off his stride during a debate as he was accused of being too privileged to understand middle-class problems.

One of the most aggressive exchanges Saturday came from former Ontario MP Martha Hall Findlay, who challenged Mr. Trudeau over his focus on the middle class.

She asked Mr. Trudeau what he knows about the middle class given his wealth, a challenge that drew some boos from the audience.

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"You yourself have admitted that you do not belong to the middle class. I find it a little challenging to understand how you would understand the challenges facing middle (class) Canadians," Ms. Hall Findlay said.

The remark comes amid some buzz about Mr. Trudeau's finances after an Ottawa newspaper this week obtained documents from Mr. Trudeau showing he has raked in big money on speaking tours while his inheritance sits at $1.2 million.

In the debate, Mr. Trudeau acknowledged his privileged background, but said all that matters is his commitment to Canadians.

"What is important for me is to put everything that I've received — like each of us wants to — in service of my community," Mr. Trudeau said to a loud cheer.

Ms. Hall Findlay later told reporters her remarks weren't a shot at Mr. Trudeau, but rather meant to draw out the difference between her and Mr. Trudeau's campaign themes.

"My issue was not personal," Ms. Hall Findlay said. "My issue was substance and experience."

"I don't think of Canada as a class society, I want us to talk about equality of opportunity."

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"We want a leader in this party... who can sit at a table with (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and have a really strong discussion about the Euro zone, or with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin and talk about how we deal with natural gas deposits under the Arctic," Ms. Hall Findlay said.

Mr. Trudeau was also pressed by rival Marc Garneau.The astronaut-turned-politician repeatedly grilled Mr. Trudeau on his qualifications for the party's top job, and chided him on for what Mr. Garneau called a lightweight campaign platform.

"What is it in your resume that qualifies you to be the future prime minister of Canada?" he asked Mr. Trudeau, returning to a line of attack Mr. Garneau has amplified in recent days.

Mr. Trudeau quickly responded, pointing to his positions on trade and post-secondary education — posted to his website hours before the debate — and his success winning back his Montreal riding from the Bloc Quebecois.

Mr. Trudeau also touched on his campaign staple of emphasizing his leadership qualities he says will rekindle the party's popularity with Canadians.

Mr. Trudeau then set his sights on Mr. Garneau, accusing him of being too tied up in detailed policy announcements instead of making inroads with voters.

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"You can't lead from a podium and a press conference, you can't win over Canadians with a five-point plan," Mr. Trudeau said.

"You have to connect with them."

The two-hour debate saw a few flare-ups between the nine candidates on issues including electoral reform, trade and energy development, while there was much agreement on other topics, including a criticism of the Conservative government's immigration policies.

Two remaining leadership debates are scheduled for Halifax and Montreal before party members elect a new leader in April.

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