OTTAWA — Liberal leadership hopeful Justin Trudeau quickly nixed a challenge Monday from rival Marc Garneau for an hour-long mano-a-mano debate.
Garneau called on Trudeau to take him on and to stop avoiding the tough questions he claims Trudeau's been dodging throughout the race.
"It's time for Justin to step up and defend his ideas because if he can't defend them to me in front of a room full of Liberals, he will never be able to do it against (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper," Garneau said.
The former astronaut has targeted Trudeau throughout the leadership contest for offering only "vague generalities" instead of concrete policies and warns the Liberal party may be making a mistake if it crowns front-runner Trudeau as its next leader.
Trudeau chose to respond on Twitter, saying: "I respect all the candidates (for leadership). See you in Halifax, Marc. I hear there are one-on-ones."
The next leadership debate is Sunday in Halifax.
Trudeau's spokeswoman refused to offer any reason for the response or add anything to Trudeau's tweet, which was signed with a smiley face emoticon.
The camps of two other contenders — Martha Hall Findlay and Joyce Murray — say Garneau shouldn't presume to be in second place.
But in a statement Hall Findlay offered her own challenge — a debate between three or four of the higher profile contenders.
In another shakeup in the Liberal race Monday, George Takach, a Toronto-based lawyer also vying for the top job, dropped out of the race and threw his support behind Trudeau.
"Justin Trudeau has what it takes to be a great prime minister. He has brought an energy and purpose to the political scene and has proven himself to be an articulate leader focused on the future, not the past," he said in a statement.
"To all my supporters, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for standing with me and the principles I believe in."
Trudeau thanked Takach for his "support and commitment."
With now eight hopefuls vying for attention, they have little time to tangle during the debates — six in total.
This week is also critical for the remaining candidates. They face a March 3 cut-off for signing up new members and supporters who will be eligible to vote for a new leader.