Hundreds of New Democrats jammed a school hall in Toronto on Wednesday as the eight candidates vying to replace the late Jack Layton as the party's leader laid out their visions at what was part polite debate, part election rally.

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NDP MP Olivia Chow speaks after NDP leadership candidates took part in a debate in Toronto. Chow says she wants to see a 'huge turnout' at the leadership conference in March. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

The candidates wasted little time in going after Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the need for an NDP government to replace his Conservatives.

"We've seen what eight months of Stephen Harper looks like: a bad dream," B.C. MP Nathan Cullen said. "Well, eight years is a nightmare."

The candidates were also keen to invoke Layton's name, who died of cancer last August just months after leading the NDP to 103 seats and Opposition status for the first time.

Brian Topp, the former party president and one of the front-runners in the seven-month race, noted that Toronto was "Layton's town."

"This was Jack Layton's town, and he loved this town because it's diverse, it's cosmopolitan, it's progressive and it's everything Stephen Harper and his pet mayor don't like about Toronto," Topp said to applause.

Wednesday's event was not one of six "official" debates organized by the party, but was one of several such events organized locally leading up to the leadership vote on March 24.

The crowd — scores of others were unable to get into the hall — responded enthusiastically to the various positions and statements.

Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, another of the leading contenders, said he's been asked whether he would move the party to the centre if he became leader.

"It's my intention to try to bring the centre to us, to continue Jack Layton's work of reaching out to people who haven't supported us in the past," Mulcair said.

Toronto MP Peggy Nash, the party's finance critic before joining the leadership contest, talked about the failure of governments to invest in cities.

"As leader, I can unite progressives right across this country so that we can defeat the agenda of Stephen Harper," Nash said.

Ottawa MP Paul Dewar spoke of Layton's announcement that he had a second form of cancer last July that stunned the party and country. "We have to take better care of each other," Dewar said. "That's what an NDP government can do."

Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh, who is pushing a national pharmacare program, stressed building links with the business community and growing the economy, while Manitoba MP Niki Ashton spoke of the growing inequality across the country. Sustainable, green infrastructure along with affordable housing is critical, Ashton said.

'We need to include people'

Romeo Saganash, an MP from northern Quebec, said the challenges facing all Canadians are similar.

"We need to include people," Saganash said. "We need to be people focused."

Candidates pushed for the need for more green energy, easing student debt, reinvesting in the Canada Pension Plan, and affordable child care.

They accused the Harper government of immigrant-bashing.

They seldom disagreed, beyond the odd friendly jibe.

"I can see we are in vigorous agreement," Nash, a local crowd favourite, said at one point.

Layton's widow, Olivia Chow, urged those in attendance to attend the March leadership conference.

"We want a huge turnout," Chow said.

 The only official debate to date — last month in Ottawa — was also collegial.

The next official debate is in Halifax Jan. 29, with others followed every two weeks in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Montreal, Vancouver and at the March convention.