The seven candidates vying to become Ontario's next premier as leader of the province's Liberal Party chose a small town as the venue for their first debate and focused on rural issues and how to revive the province's economy.

The debate was held in Ingersoll, Ont., near London and Woodstock. It was the first of five scheduled debates before the leadership convention in Toronto, taking place Jan. 25-26.

Winning small-town Ontario back is key for the Liberals, who now only hold a minority of seats in the legislature, having lost many of the rural areas during the last election.

Kathleen Wynne, thought to be the frontrunner, provided the biggest surprise of the afternoon, when asked how she would address the needs of rural Ontario. She said if she wins the leadership in January, she would serve as agriculture minister for one year.

Former bank executive Charles Sousa, who has said his background as a banker would help him be the "jobs" premier, also commented on issues facing rural communities.

"It's not just about improving Liberal Party fortunes in rural Ontario but improving the fortunes of rural Ontario," Sousa said.

Gerard Kennedy, who finished second to Dalton McGuinty in the previous Liberal leadership race in 1996, and Sandra Pupatello — who left Queen’s Park in 2011 for a Bay Street job — said the government is out of touch with its rural population, specifically on issues pertaining to energy.

Candidates also answered questions on Liberal insiders and health care, for the most part not differing greatly.

Protesters outside the debate

About 150 people were in attendance for the debate, with many others outside protesting things such as wind farms, teachers' wages and a local landfill project.

A curveball question came from the audience, asking what the candidates would do about the auto industry's competition from Mexico and the U.S. south.

Eric Hoskins, a medical doctor and co-founder of the charity War Child Canada, struggled with his answer.

"Well, the premier... the government doesn't create jobs," he said.

One of the only moments in the debate where a candidate tried to separate themselves from the others was when Pupatello hinted she had the best chance of beating the other parties come election time, which could be soon after the new premier is chosen.

"I can beat the Conservatives. I can beat the NDP, and that's what we need now," she said.

Other candidates include Winnipeg’s former mayor, Glen Murray, as well as Harinder Takhar, former government services minister, who was the last to enter the leadership race.

Saturday's debate was run by the Liberal Party and moderated by them. The next debate on Thursday is moderated by journalist Steve Paikin and is expected to be more lively, posing some tougher questions on the candidates

With files from The Canadian Press