WINNIPEG - The gloves came off in the Manitoba Liberal leadership race Thursday night, when Rana Bokhari said she had more energy and more work ethic than her competitors.
"Hands down. Absolutely. Without a doubt," Bokhari told reporters backstage after a two-hour debate.
"I grew up that way. These are my personal characteristics."
At 35, Bokhari is the youngest of the candidates to replace Jon Gerrard at the helm of the struggling party, which has just one seat in the legislature.
To date, the race has been quite tame, with Bokhari, Dougald Lamont and Bob Axworthy agreeing on most issues.
Bokhari started to fire a salvo at her opponents in her closing statement Thursday, then stopped mid-sentence.
"Vote for me if we want a change. If we want the same status quo..." she said before halting. Her supporters then applauded.
Pressed for details afterward, Bokhari said she has brought in 600 new party members in the last two months. The party had only 700 members earlier this year, and now reports a total of 2,100 due to the leadership contest, where every member gets a vote.
Bokhari, a lawyer who is new to politics, said she has been working "on the ground every day" and the result has been "a lot of new people, a lot of youth."
Lamont, a 44-year-old small business owner and marketing consultant who has worked on Liberal campaigns in the past, dismissed Bokhari's claim.
"There's no doubt she has energy and Bob has experience, but I think that I offer a generational change as well as experience."
Axworthy, a 59-year-old political strategist and inner-city basketball coach, also rejected Bokhari's accusation.
"It's folly that (Lamont and I) would not work hard to encourage members, that we do not have the energy."
The Liberals will choose their new leader Oct. 26. Thursday's debate contained almost no discussion about how to rebuild the party, which took a year to pay off its debt from a disastrous 2011 election campaign.
Instead, the candidates were asked pre-submitted questions from interest groups representing seniors, municipal governments and others.
Axworthy said he feels most Manitobans would support the NDP government's controversial sales tax increase, to eight per cent from seven per cent, if it was clear that the money was being put to good use on infrastructure and other items.
Lamont said if he were premier, he would top up funding to federally run schools on First Nations, so that they received as much money as provincial schools.
Bokhari said she would develop a tax credit to encourage aboriginals students to return to their communities after graduating university.
Thursday's debate was the party's last faceoff before the leadership convention.
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