O'Leary shrugs off attacks at Conservative leadership debate

If Kevin O’Leary was upset about being the target of many of the attacks during the Conservative leadership debate in Halifax on Saturday, he didn’t show it.

'I thought it was a wonderful welcome actually,' O’Leary said after his 1st debate

Kellie Leitch, right, and Kevin O'Leary were among the 14 candidates taking part in Saturday night's Conservative leadership debate in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

If Kevin O'Leary was upset about being the target of many of the attacks during the Conservative leadership debate in Halifax on Saturday, he didn't show it.

His hospitality suite in the Westin Hotel was the largest room by far, and O'Leary took to the stage there himself to play a few tunes with a live band.

"I thought it was a wonderful welcome actually," O'Leary said after his first debate.

The debate touched on corporate taxation, the economy, mandatory minimum sentencing and the carbon tax. Much of the vitriole from other candidates was reserved for O'Leary, a perceived front-runner, who was criticized for the amount of time he spends in the U.S., for giving money to the Liberal party and for being a "celebrity" candidate.

He rarely used his rebuttals to respond, nor did he criticize the other 13 candidates.

"There's really no need to do that. That is not constructive for the Conservative Party. It makes no sense at all," O'Leary said afterwards.

In the post-debate parties, the criticism continued.

Erin O'Toole's hospitality suite featured a game, pin the tail on the dragon, a reference to O'Leary's time on CBC's Dragons' Den. 

Maxime Bernier makes a point as Andrew Scheer, left, looks on at the Conservative leadership candidates' debate, in Halifax on Saturday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"He's donated to the Liberals in my riding, so I take particular umbrage with Mr. O'Leary, who only bought a membership months ago and feels he can use his celebrity to swan into this race without explaining why he's a conservative," O'Toole said.

Nova Scotia Conservatives organized this debate as part of their annual general meeting. Their members wanted a chance to ask the leadership candidates questions on policy and to see what they were all like in person. Many stopped by hospitality suites, asking for photographs, and asking the candidates about issues important to them, such as jobs and the economy.

Party members came to O'Leary's hospitality suite to get their picture taken with him. Others were there to check him out, still unsure if he will get their support.

But June Noble from Antigonish, N.S., liked what she saw.

Lisa Raitt, originally from Cape Breton, received a lot of applause after telling the crowd that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn't share many of their concerns like how to pay the mortgage. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"Kevin O'Leary really got shot at and I really respected how he held his ground and he didn't let it get to him," Noble said after the debate. 

Noble said she came to the debate knowing little about the 14 candidates. After the debate had concluded, she said she liked both O'Leary and Lisa Raitt.

1st choice, 2nd choice

Many Conservatives could be seen afterwards, visiting the hospitality suites, with the debate program clutched in their hand, check marks by some pictures, X's by others.

The new leader will be chosen by a preferential ballot and many said they have had their first choice decided for a while, but were now trying to decide who to put in second and third spot.

Kevin O'Leary was the subject of many barbs during Saturday's debate, his first since entering the race for Conservative leader. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Lisa Raitt had one of the busiest hospitality suites of the night.

She was asked how she was going to compete against the two front-runners, O'Leary and Maxime Bernier.

Raitt takes aim at Trudeau

She said her strategy was to focus on the next election in 2019 and defeating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"I put myself out as the candidate that best contrasts with Justin Trudeau and can talk to folks who want to trust their politician and their leader again because I think he has broken their trust," she said.

​Others are focusing on their ground game, meeting with small groups of people.

The other perceived front-runner, Maxime Bernier, spent part of Sunday at a local supporter's house near Halifax, meeting with a few local Conservatives. It's the kind of the event he has done since he was the second person to enter race last year, and it's a definite contrast from O'Leary who is holding bigger events with hundreds of people.

"I don't want big crowds. I'm not like O'Leary. I want small crowds to be able to have contact with them, to be able to exchange and answer their questions. And I think that's very useful for me and for them also," Bernier said.

Andrew Scheer also admitted that the debates, with 14 candidates, are challenging.

"These debates are tough. I haven't worked it out yet but [we were] up there for two hours and probably had eight or nine minutes of talk time for each candidate," he said.

"I'm focusing on the ground game talking to as many members individually as I can," he said.

Watch the full debate:

Conservative leadership debate

5 years ago
First debate with all 14 Conservative leadership candidates took place Saturday night in Halifax 2:00:07


Susan Lunn has been covering politics in Ottawa since 2002. She has a special interest in health and the environment.


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