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Jean Charest speaks to supporters at a campaign event in Laval, Que., on March 24. Mr. Charest said on May 1 he's 'running in this race as a conservative, not a hyphenated conservative.'Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Jean Charest, who has been criticized for lacking roots in the Conservative Party, touted his credentials on Sunday at the first gathering of prospective party leaders.

“I’m running in this race as a conservative, not a hyphenated conservative. I’m running as a conservative who believes in the values that you and I share,” Mr. Charest told about 900 people, a mix of party members and curious members of the public, at a convention centre in Burlington, Ont. The gathering was not a debate but rather a forum organized by seven Greater Toronto Area Tory electoral district associations (EDA), during which candidates were given six minutes each to deliver speeches.

Mr. Charest, who was Quebec premier of Liberal government between 2003 and 2012, said he is a fiscal conservative who believes in economic policies that promote growth, including resources and the rule of law.

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Among those looking on as the former Quebec premier spoke was Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre, a leadership candidate who has been drawing large crowds during his own campaign while being a pointed critic of Mr. Charest. Fellow candidates present at the gathering were Ontario MPs Scott Aitchison and Leslyn Lewis, Brampton, Ont., Mayor Patrick Brown and independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber.

Mr. Poilievre used his six minutes to tout his commitment to freedom across issues including vaccination, housing and the economy.

“People feel like they are losing control of their lives. I am running for prime minister to make Canada the freest nation on Earth,” he said, repeating a catchphrase of his campaign.

Patrick Brown announces his candidacy for the federal Conservative leadership at a rally in Brampton, Ont., on March 13.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Mr. Brown, who has been running his campaign with a low media profile, took a moment to praise each of his rivals, saying, for example, that Ms. Lewis has been making the case for Conservative values in such places as Scarborough where the party has not always been successful, that Mr. Aitchison “radiates kindness,” and Mr. Charest worked to keep Canada united. Of Mr. Poilievre, he praised the MP’s “determined prosecution” of the Liberal government’s economic policies.

“You look at a slate of candidates like this and it speaks to the strength of the Conservative movement,” Mr. Brown said.

But he said the Conservatives have too often abandoned seats in the GTA and that has to change. He noted that only two of the seven seats represented by EDA organizers of Sunday’s event are represented by Conservatives.

Conservative MP and leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre speaks during a news conference outside the Bank of Canada in Ottawa, on April 28.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

To date, the race has been marked by attacks and hostility between the Poilievre, Charest and Brown campaigns. But on Sunday, candidates were shaking each other’s hands after speeches and chatting among themselves as they sat beside the stage where they made their pitch.

The gathering also marks a new phase of the leadership race this month, as candidates have their first debates. Thursday will see the first debate of the campaign, held in Ottawa at the 14th annual Canada Strong and Free Networking conference. The party is holding an official English-language debate in Edmonton on May 11 and a French-language debate in Laval, Que., on May 25. The Conservatives will announce their new leader, chosen by party members through a mail-in ballot, on Sept. 10.

Conservative commentator Tim Powers, chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data, said the high-profile events are key for the contenders to demonstrate their worth and the billing they are giving themselves.

“It’s about [their] last sales pitch and push. [They] want to use these performances to hold and build their lead, cut into the lead of somebody else, and sell, sell, sell,” Mr. Powers said in an interview.

“Nobody wants to make an error and some people want to have big wins so that they can position themselves going into June 3 as they have the opportunity to still sell memberships.”

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