Kathleen Wynne lobbed the first curveball in an otherwise unexciting first Ontario Liberal leadership debate Saturday, promising to serve as agricultural minister if she wins the race.  

"This is such an important issue for us as a province, not just as a party, not just as a government, that I think the premier needs to take this on," Wynne told about 150 people who attended the first all-candidates debate in Ingersoll. “So as premier I would appoint myself minister of agricultural and rural affairs for at least a year.”

The debate, the first of five, was dominated by rural issues and health care. Apart from Wynne’s pledge to take on the agriculture, food and rural affairs portfolio, the seven leadership hopefuls didn’t stray too far from the pack, all playing up prior experience and responding with similar answers to questions from Liberal insiders.

All candidates promised to focus on jobs, health care and winning back rural support. Due to the wind farms controversy, the Liberals have been lagging in rural support in recent years.

One-time cabinet minister Gerard Kennedy, one of two candidates who was not part of the government when Premier Dalton McGuinty announced his resignation in October, distanced himself from the premier, to whom he lost the leadership race in 1996. Kennedy said it is imperative the government regain the trust of Ontarians in rural areas, and offer a renewed agenda. 

"We get it, we understand that Mr. McGuinty has stepped down because he knows you want to see a changed agenda, not a fundamentally different one, but one that Ontarians can relate to in a fresh way," said Kennedy.

Glen Murray touted his past leadership abilities and the renewing city finances during his time as mayor of Winnipeg. If elected Liberal leader and subsequently premier, he promised tax breaks for the middle class. Murray stepped down from his role as minister of training, colleges and universities to seek the leadership. 

In an attempt to present themselves as leaders who would encourage job creation and foster economic growth in rural areas, former cabinet ministers Charles Sousa and Harinder Takhar spoke about their experience in the business world, while Eric Hoskins played up his experience both as a medical doctor and his work in humanitarian aid.

"I entered this leadership race because I believe that my experience inside and outside of politics -- yes I'm not a veteran, been in politics provincially for three years, but I'm not a novice either -- gives me the necessary experience and perspective to lead this party and the province forward," said Hoskins, who was first elected in 2009 and quickly moved up the ranks to cabinet under McGuinty’s leadership.

Sandra Pupatello, who like Kennedy was not a member of the legislature when the leadership race commenced, focused on party renewal and regaining a majority government.

"Since moving from majority to minority, something happened along the way to the government," she said. "It's really important that we reconnect, that we re-engage with the party members that we had and the new ones that we've brought along. It is about listening to rural Ontario."

Prior to retiring from politics in 2011, Pupatello held several high-profile ministerial roles, including education and economic development and trade.

Ahead of their appearance, the candidates were greeted by dozens of anti-wind farm protesters who chanted in front of the debate hall carrying signs declaring "Rage Against Green Energy" and "Stop Wind Power.”

Meanwhile, out back, teachers and members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees demonstrated their anger about Bill 115.

The leadership candidates will square off again next Saturday in Thunder Bay, then Ottawa on Dec. 18, Ajax Jan. 6 and Toronto on Jan. 9.

Party members will select about 2,000 delegates for the leadership convention, including 16 from each of the 107 ridings, at local meetings on Jan. 12 and 13, 2013.

The leadership convention will then be held the weekend of Jan.25 at Maple Leaf Gardens -- the same site where Dalton McGuinty was elected leader of the party in 1996.

With files from The Canadian Press