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Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson.
Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson.

In Tory leadership, it’s O’Leary pizzazz vs. dull-but-worthy Add to ...

Even though he boycotted Tuesday night’s debate in Edmonton, even though he was not even mentioned by name, Kevin O’Leary dominated the evening. The entrepreneur-turned-TV-star has emerged as the man to beat in the race for Conservative leader.

Party members must choose between Mr. O’Leary’s pizzazz and the dull-but-worthy alternatives. Dull-but-worthy is better than it sounds. Canadians could turn to Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, Ontario MP Erin O’Toole or Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer – the most likely alternatives to Mr. O’Leary – if they tire of Justin Trudeau’s deficit-fuelled charm and go looking for a managerial alternative.

But Mr. O’Leary offers the promise of blowing up Ottawa’s staid conventions and replacing them with something new. What exactly? Who cares? For his supporters, the conflagration is enough.

With voting only eight weeks away, the question is whether anyone will break from that pack to become the most credible alternative to Mr. O’Leary’s incendiary campaign. Tuesday’s debate offered few clues.

Read more: Kevin O’Leary says he can’t be bought, sets $50,000 fundraiser minimum

Read more: Hot air: The truth about Kevin O’Leary’s business history

Globe editorial: Kevin O’Leary, Donald Trump and the downside of celebrity politicians

The credible half-dozen candidates in this ridiculously overcrowded field mostly agree on what matters. Tuesday night, they vowed Conservatives would increase spending on defence. (They did that in government but then cut back again.) They would close the loophole that is letting refugee claimants cross the border from the United States. (They didn’t say how, because no one knows how.) They would defend the rights of gun owners. (Okay. Next.)

Mr. Bernier repeated his vow to eliminate subsidies for the dairy industry and to downsize the CBC. Ontario MP Michael Chong bravely defended his proposed carbon tax, despite the boos from the crowd.

A carbon tax was the “most conservative” way to fight global warming, he correctly insisted. But one suspects that, within the party, fighting global warming is hardly a priority, and new taxes are anathema.

Mr. O’Leary was probably wise to stay away from such a gaggle, if only because these bilingual debates remind people he has no ability to speak French.

But unilingualism is only one of the many hurdles that should make him unelectable as leader. The candidate continues to live and work in the United States. And at the Manning Conference last weekend, he vowed he would punish any province that imposed a carbon tax by slashing its transfer payments – an approach to federalism that out-Liberals the Liberal-est Liberal.

But that doesn’t seem to matter. Mr. O’Leary’s backers see him as a hard-assed businessman who (in their view) can clean up the financial mess the Liberals have created in Ottawa, ram through pipelines over “special interest” protests and generally upset the status quo.

He is a Donald Trump Mini-Me: an entrepreneur (though not nearly as rich as the Donald) who became the star of a TV program (though not nearly as famous) with a huge ego (though we hope not nearly as narcissistic) who will speak for the forgotten voter, whoever that mythical voter may be.

Against this, Mr. Bernier offers strong libertarian leanings, Erin O’Toole suburban moderation, and Andrew Scheer quiet social conservatism. All the other candidates appear to have disqualified themselves through some combination of unilingualism or strange policy choices. People within the party, speaking on background, now have little expectation that Kellie Leitch, with her anti-immigration policy of screening new arrivals for “Canadian values,” will win much support.

That said, no one can predict the outcome of this race. With each of 338 ridings equally weighted, victory may go to whoever has the best organized campaign across the country and who sells the most memberships. Or, with a ranked ballot, victory could go to everyone’s third choice. Mr. O’Leary thinks sheer celebrity appeal will be sufficient, and he may be right.

Either way, time is starting to run out. The membership cut-off is March 28. Voting begins April 28 and ends May 26. The result will be known May 27.

Leadership contests test the strength of the roots of a party. If this is still Stephen Harper’s party, one of the dull-but-worthy policy wonks will prevail. If it has become something else, then it will welcome the Boston business tycoon.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson


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