Canadian opposition leader tells debate: 'I'm driving the bus,' won't bow to party hardliners

OTTAWA (Reuters) -The head of Canada’s main opposition Conservatives kicked off a crucial leaders’ debate on Thursday ahead of the Sept. 20 election by insisting he was in charge of his party and would not bow to the views of legislators with hardline social views.

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Polls show the Conservatives of Erin O’Toole have a chance of winning the election and ending six years of Liberal rule. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the vote as a referendum on his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trudeau accuses O’Toole of harboring an extremist agenda, noting that most Conservative lawmakers voted in favor of draft legislation earlier this year that would have banned some abortions. The initiative failed.

Asked whether he or his caucus would be setting policy inside a Conservative government, O’Toole told the debate: “I am driving the bus to make sure we get this country back on track. And I’m here to defend the rights of all Canadians, women, members of the LGBTQ community.”

O’Toole took over his right-leaning party last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and insiders concede he has had trouble introducing himself to voters.

Polls show him with a slight lead amid voter unhappiness with Trudeau’s decision to call an election two years early. (nL1N2Q20YW])

The debate is the only one of three in English, spoken by two-thirds of Canada’s 38 million people, and is traditionally seen as a key means of influencing voters.

“This is perhaps the single most important two hours of O’Toole’s political life. … There are a lot of open minds out there, so things could shift quickly either way,” said a Conservative strategist who requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak to the media.

Before the debate, O’Toole received a boost when Quebec Premier François Legault said a vote for the Conservatives would be better than one for the Liberals.

Quebec accounts for 78 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons and is crucial for any party seeking office.

A three-day rolling Ekos phone poll of 1,365 adults released on Thursday showed the Conservatives at 33.6% public support, versus 30.7% for the Liberals and 15.7% for the smaller left-leaning New Democrats. The poll had a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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