The nine leadership candidates vying for the top job of the New Democratic Party did their best Sunday to show the members of their party and Canadians at large how they would manage the economy if elected leader.

The televised debate, the first of six, began with opening statements outlining their overall message and priorities.

Robert Chisholm's opening line invoked a message the party's late leader, Jack Layton, delivered when the writ for the last election was dropped on March 26: "Ottawa is broken and it's getting worse."

Thomas Mulcair was the only candidate to begin his opening remarks in French, and Niki Ashton asked for support in bringing "new politics to Ottawa."

A round of questions and the opportunity to debate in groups of three followed the opening statements. While most of the candidates played nice, there was one moment in the first hour of the debate that sparked some disagreement.

Caelin Campbell, a university student in Victoria, asked: "As prime minister what would be the first change you would make to address the environmental concerns currently facing our country?"

Paul Dewar said he would propose "an east-to-west grid for sustainable energy."

But Dewar's proposal did not go unchallenged for long.

In fact, as soon as the group of three was allowed to debate, it was this particular exchange between Dewar and Brian Topp that sparked the most debate.

Topp asked Dewar how he planned to fund such a grid. Dewar deflected the question by saying, "Actually, I'm going to focus on the environment and climate change."

But Topp persisted: "How do you plan to pay for it?"

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Robert Chisholm addresses Nathan Cullen, far left, and Romeo Saganash during the debate. (CBC)

An annoyed Dewar answered, "If I may … where the money will come from is by taking the corporate tax cuts … and start investing in infrastructure in this country."

Thomas Mulcair jumped in, but it didn't take long for Topp to press Dewar again: "If at the end of the day what you are proposing to do with all of the plans is putting them on the public debt …"

"I thought we were talking about the environment?" Dewar replied.

Topp pressed on, "If your plan is to put it all on the public debt, then the risk that we run is that we won't get elected."

With somewhat of a surprised look of on his face, Dewar asked Topp, "Who is saying that?"

Also debating each other in groups of three were Romeo Saganash, Nathan Cullen and Chisholm, as well as Ashton,  Peggy Nash and Martin Singh.

Saganash, a first-time MP from Quebec, seemed calm but his voice betrayed his nervousness throughout the debate. By contrast, Singh, who has never run for office, seemed confident even when speaking in French.

NDP candidates' second choice

The last rapid fire question during the French debate was from Mathieu Boisvert from Montreal, who asked "given that the next NDP leader will be elected by the party membership using a preferential ballot, who is your second choice for NDP leader?"

Here's what they said:

  • Paul Dewar — Romeo Saganash.
  • Nathan Cullen — Peggy Nash.
  • Peggy Nash — Niki Ashton.
  • Romeo Saganash — "Undecided."
  • Thomas Mulcair — "Together we are unbeatable."
  • Niki Ashton — All the candidates are "great."
  • Robert Chisholm — Will decide "at the convention."
  • Brian Topp — Niki Ashton.
  • Martin Singh — One who "knows what to do with the private sector."

Cullen best summed up the nicety and overall tone of the debate when he said, "I'm in violent agreement with my colleagues here."

Nash, a veteran politician, stayed focused on the main topic of debate and her plan for delivering "a strong, stable economy."

According to Harris-Decima pollster Bruce Anderson, the economy is the "most important issue for voters, and it's also the most significant question that some voters would have about the NDP."

And the NDP agrees.

While the NDP's position on subjects like health care and the environment are traditionally well known, NDP interim deputy national director Sally Housser believes the next leader of the NDP will have to show the ability to "manage the economy, especially in times of economic turmoil."

Bilingualism

The second hour of the debate was in French and moderated by journalist Joel-Denis Bellavance.

Bilingualism has become an important issue for the NDP since the May 2 election when Quebecers propelled the NDP to Official Opposition. With more than half of their caucus colleagues now from la belle province, the pressure was on most NDP candidates to show they were capable of debating in French.

Chisholm, who was born in Kentville, N.S., was the only candidate not to answer the questions in French. When asked about it after the debate, he said: "I'm working with a tutor almost everyday."

The NDP will choose a new leader on March 24, 2012.