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CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - At 27, Christian Wiedemer was far below the average age of attendees at Thursday night’s final PC leadership candidates debate.
But he was not shy about giving his opinion about what the party needs to do to correct its course.
"I think the party needs to take itself seriously," he said. “I find the Conservative, PC side is still very open. The last (annual general meeting) wasn't really up to scratch of being able to pull voters in and motivate people.”
Wiedemer and his 15-year-old sister Alisa were among the roughly 300 people who attended the debate, held at the Murphy’s Community Centre in Charlottetown.
The five leadership candidates - Kevin Arsenault, Allan Dale, Shawn Driscoll, Dennis King and Sarah Stewart-Clark - all presented their vision of what they would bring to the table as party leader. They also presented their ideas about how to bring their party, which has been trailing the Liberal and Green Parties in the polls, back into contention.
Wiedemer said he decided to support Driscoll because of his pro-life beliefs, although he noted that he had not been as “poignant” on the topic as Arsenault. Arsenault has gained the endorsement of the socially conservative Campaign Life Coalition, an Ottawa-based pro-life organization.
But Wiedemer also supported Driscoll’s fiscally conservative values.
"We need to bring up conservative policies and to be an opposition, to show that we actually have something different than the Liberals and something different from the Greens," Wiedemer said.
Barry MacPhee, who has been a PC member for years, also said the party has to differentiate itself from the Liberal and the Green parties. He believes Sarah Stewart-Clark is the best choice to make this happen and pointed to the well-developed policy planks on her website.
"I think the fact that she's a woman and can see things from a different perspective, through a different lens, is extremely valuable for the party and the province,” he said.
Other candidates managed to turn out a visible number of supporters. Many attendees sported a white and blue button with King’s name on it, while Arsenault managed to elicit some of the strongest reactions from the crowd during the debate, with his sharp rebukes of the current Liberal government.
But several people The Guardian spoke with said they were still undecided about their preferred candidate. Most declined to comment publicly.
Thursday’s debate saw the candidates take a sharper tone. The five each took pointed jabs at one another, offering diverging visions for the province.
As in previous debates, the candidates retraced key themes of their own leadership brand. Arsenault began his opening statement by emphasizing his commitment to root out what he saw as the corruption of the governing Liberal Party. King, by contrast, spoke out fiercely against the negativity of partisan politics on P.E.I. Driscoll emphasized traditional conservative policies – lower taxes, co-operation with enterprise and a freeze on government fees, while Dale accentuated his role as a team-builder and a collaborator. Stewart-Clark, particularly on questions related to mental health or poverty, packed in an impressive array of detailed policy solutions.
But each candidate offered a more pointed answer when asked how they intended to help the party win the next election.
Driscoll spoke about the party’s core values and building up district associations but also said it needed to attract younger voters.
"I put forward a number of policies I think will resonate with younger voters because that's who I am," Driscoll said.
Stewart-Clark said her work with groups like Island Mothers Helping Mothers would help her sway undecided voters.
"The biggest political group right now … is the undecideds. And I am the candidate that can draw more of the undecided votes blue than any other candidate standing up here,” she said.
Dale said his past leadership experience made him uniquely qualified.
“This is about team building. This is all I've done, all my life," he said. "We need to build a strong team, move into this election, inspire people to come onboard."
Arsenault said his anti-corruption platform has been more detailed than that of other candidates. He took issue with what he described as a lack of a “comprehensive platform” from King.
“Unfortunately, Dennis says that he doesn't believe the place of a leader is to dictate policy but to put a process in place for other people to put forward ideas. We don't have time for that," Arsenault said.
In response, King heatedly spoke about his commitment to ending fractious politics on P.E.I.
"I'm not fighting anyone. I'm not fighting an election, I'm not fighting other parties," King said. "I want change the style of our politics because people are sick and tired of being sick and tired of their politicians. Let's stand up and give them something. Let's stand for something instead of fighting everything."
The deadline for candidates to sign up new members ends Friday. Party members will vote during a leadership convention on Feb. 9.