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Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

Lawrence Martin

And now for our free-for-all: It’s the Tory turtle derby Add to ...

Forget the bedlam to the south. Here, we have our own political wrangle to behold. The fight for the Conservative Party leadership crown begins in earnest tonight with the first all-candidates debate.

Twelves candidates have emerged thus far, the same number as for the Republican leadership race this year. Party stars like Peter MacKay and Brad Wall have stayed away, turning the campaign into a turtle derby.

Of the dozen contestants, Canadians would be hard pressed to name three. Some are just in it for purposes of self-esteem. It’s nice: They get to have their egos swell, however briefly, like bagpipes.

Fittingly, the venue for the first debate is Saskatoon, a town where, as the legendary sports writer Jim Murray said of Spokane, Wash., there’s nothing going on after 10 o’clock – “in the morning.”

But while every political contest from here to eternity will look lifeless compared with the American charade, let’s not shortchange this one’s possibilities. Starting in the prairie town tonight, there could be fireworks in sight. For one thing, upstart Kellie Leitch will be there.

If the high-profile Ontario MP had a campaign slogan, you might call it “Make Immigrant Screening Great Again.” She’s practically started a culture war within the party. She got in a hissing match this week with candidate Lisa Raitt, the talented but French-language-hobbled Maritimer who turned thumbs down on the Leitch plan for a values litmus test for newcomers.

Poor Ms. Leitch. Everybody’s ganging up on her hardline ways. It’s like she’s Matilda the Hun. But she’s hitting back. “Lisa Raitt has decided,” a release from her camp said, “to stand with the left-wing media elite and the rest of the Conservative candidates who don’t want to stand up for our shared Canadian values.” If that sounds zany, bear in mind the Leitch campaign is being run by renowned mud-ball hurler Nick Kouvalis, kingmaker for late Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

While the Tory campaign is lacking a marquee name, no one should doubt its importance. Make light of the 12 terrapins we might, but the victorious one could well be the next prime minister of this country.

The race will determine the type and shape, the heart and soul of a party which needs serious questions answered.

One question is this: There is an increasing tendency not only among American conservatives but in the Canadian party as well, particularly post-Brian Mulroney, to contour its appeal to low-education voters. Is that the type of party, one which equates erudition with elitism, our Conservatives want to be?

Another question: Several leadership candidates are nowhere close to being bilingual, but there has been little push-back from the party. Wasn’t the prerequisite of being bilingual to run modern Canada settled back in 1983 when the leadership bid of the unilingual John Crosbie was turned away? Does the party really wish to lock itself out of Quebec?

Another question. Gutter politics reached its nadir with the Republicans in the past year. While by no means equal, our Conservatives’ recent governing history was pockmarked by ethical duplicity. Can they convince Canadians they are capable of a new way? Openness and good faith in place of circle-the-wagons distrust?

The campaign’s overriding question is whether the party wants to continue as the party of Stephen Harper, which, after all, won three of five elections; or whether it wishes to espouse a more moderate type of conservatism with broader outreach.

To look at the résumés of the combatants is to find that most are firmly on the right. They include former veteran affairs minister Erin O’Toole, and former Commons speaker Andrew Scheer, who many see as the two front runners. They also include Maxime Bernier, Brad Trost, Steven Blaney and Ms. Leitch, all of whom could fit comfortably in a Dick Cheney cabinet.

Among the more moderate are Michael Chong, Deepak Obhrai and perhaps Lisa Raitt.

There’s six months to go, but as the race begins the core right leads the way.

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