TORONTO - Things are getting a little nasty in the race to replace John Tory as leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party.

Tim Hudak accused rival Frank Klees of being "Liberal-lite" for opposing a thorny proposal to scrap the province's Human Rights Tribunal during a TV Ontario debate Thursday night.

The issue has become a bone of contention between the four leadership contenders, with Hudak and Randy Hillier supporting the idea and Klees and Christine Elliott vehemently opposing it.

Hudak bristled at Klees's contention that getting rid of the tribunal would brand the Tories as anti-human rights and tank with voters in the next provincial election in 2011.

"If we go down this road, we are handing the next four years to (Premier) Dalton McGuinty," Klees charged.

Hudak fired back, suggesting that Klees was running away from the issue and siding with the ruling Liberals.

"If you want to put the election on a platter for the Liberals, the best way to do so is to run from our conservative principles and try to be Liberal-lite," he said.

Asked repeatedly by host Steve Paikin whether he was accusing his opponent of being "Liberal-lite," Hudak all but said it outright.

"If you take on McGuinty's position, then you're Liberal lite," he insisted.

The caustic exchange harkened back to the 2002 leadership race, when then-contender Jim Flaherty -- now the federal finance minister -- likened his rival Ernie Eves to a "pale pink imitation" of McGuinty.

Unlike the four party-organized debates, Thursday's event allowed the candidates to respond directly to accusations levelled at them by their rivals.

Responding to Hudak's remarks, Klees said he's not about policies that will divide the party and polarize the province.

"I don't want to go back to those days when wedge issues were the flavour of the day, when we were picking fights with every stakeholder group in this province," he said.

"That's why we're not in government today."

The public sniping was only a taste of the larger war being waged in the backrooms of the two campaigns before party members head to the polls.

Officials for Hudak sent a letter Thursday to the party's election committee complaining about what they claimed were dirty tricks being pulled by Klees supporters.

The Hudak camp accused the Klees campaign of using a pollster to ask "a battery of negative questions designed to smear" Hudak, whose campaign is backed by former premier Mike Harris.

They want the Conservative party brass to order the Klees campaign to stop the polling and issue a formal apology.

The Klees campaign insisted there is no merit to the complaint, which they called a "frivolous attack" by the Hudak camp.

Klees denied his campaign had conducted any so-called push polling.

"That wasn't ours," he said after the debate.

"The polling that we have done and the voter identification that we have done has been straightforward. It simply speaks to people and the issues and asks them who they're going to support."

During the hour-long live debate, all four contenders were grilled on issues from early education to tax harmonization and the government auto bailout.

Hudak tried to defuse attacks over the tribunal with a well-timed endorsement by Keith Norton, a former cabinet minister who headed the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

He showed little enthusiasm for a $1-billion plan to implement full-day learning for four- and five-year-olds, which received tepid support from Klees and Elliott.

Hillier didn't hide his contempt for the early education plan, branding it as little more than nationalized daycare.

Speaking after the debate, Hillier confirmed that he's telling his supporters to make Hudak their second choice, saying Hudak is closer ideologically to his platform than any of the other candidates.

Securing the No. 2 spot on the ballot could be crucial for victory if no candidate wins a majority of the vote on the first round of counting.

About 40,000 party members are choosing their new leader with ballots that will ask voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. The province-wide votes will be held June 21 and 25.

The winner will be announced June 27 at a party convention in Markham, north of Toronto.