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Canada Christine Elliott takes an entirely different tone for one last, unexpected chance at the helm of the Ontario PCs

Ontario PC leadership candidate Christine Elliott participates in a debate in Ottawa on Feb. 28, 2018.

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

For the third straight Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership election, Christine Elliott is winning the air war – coming across as the most obvious choice, if you're relying on media coverage to tell you how the race is playing out.

The other two times, in 2009 and 2015, it was a mirage. Her campaigns were great at broadly positioning her as the sort of moderate Red Tory who sounds eminently reasonable to those outside her party's base. But she was a lacklustre candidate keeping a slower pace than her opponents, surrounded by people gifted at media spin but unskilled at the organizational ground game that actually wins leadership contests.

This time, it feels real.

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Spend time with her – witness how differently she presents herself this time, listen to her explain lessons learned from past political disappointments and a whole lot of personal trauma – and you get a sense of why this time, she's surprising those in her party who had written her off. Even if you're still not exactly sure what kind of leader or premier she'd be, you're left with none of the old doubt about how badly she even wants the job. Over breakfast in downtown Toronto this week, in the final stretch before results of the vote to replace Patrick Brown are announced Saturday, Ms. Elliott left little doubt that she heard the past criticism, including from some who worked on her previous campaigns and came away frustrated by her lack of dedication.

"I think that one of the concerns about me in the past has been that maybe I'm not strong enough to do this," she said.

It's not that she really wasn't strong enough, she clarified. "But I think that I'm really trying to demonstrate that more to people."

So she is keeping the kind of schedule she never did before (six meet-and-greets in one day, she boasted). Once tentative and visibly uncomfortable, as though campaigning with a gun to her head, she now presents confidently and comparatively forcefully. If there are hands to be shaken, calls to be made, organizers to be courted, she is putting in the time.

Precisely why the 62-year-old former MPP, who previously represented Whitby-Oshawa but has floated running for a seat in the city of Toronto where she now lives, is doing all this has been one of the campaign's mysteries. Ms. Elliott herself acknowledges some "initial surprise" even from supporters that she threw her hat in the ring yet again. She seemed to have comfortably settled into non-partisan life as Ontario's Patient Ombudsman, after leaving politics following her 2015 leadership loss to Mr. Brown. Why not leave it to Caroline Mulroney to be the flag-bearer for relative moderates uncharmed by the populist stylings of Doug Ford, the other main contender for the PC crown?

An uncharitable explanation, offered by some of her detractors, is that she was enticed by a leadership campaign that requires less work than most, since courtesy of Mr. Brown's abrupt pre-election departure, it has lasted only a few weeks rather than the usual many months. ("I'm certainly happier that it's a shorter time frame," she allowed.) Her preferred answer for why she's running, beyond believing she has experience needed to steer her party past its recent crisis, is a two-fold effort to demonstrate her conservatism and progressivism. She wants to make sure, she says, that future generations aren't saddled with mountainous debt. And inspired by her work with the Abilities Centre – a facility she co-founded to provide services to people with disabilities – she wants to build a "truly inclusive Ontario" in which physical or mental challenges are less of a barrier to a fulfilling life.

There's no doubting the latter in particular, which has been a theme of all her campaigns, and is borne of personal experience. (One of her three triplets, now 26 years old, grew up with special needs.)

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But it doesn't take much reading between the lines to get the sense there is also something else going on here – a resolve born of chance, in more ways than one:

A last, unexpected chance to finally achieve what she and her late husband, Jim Flaherty, have been attempting ever since Mike Harris left office near the start of this century. Four times between them – his two efforts before hers – they sought the provincial Tories' leadership. If Mr. Brown had stayed leader for any length of time, the dream would probably have been over; if she's rejected as his replacement, it certainly will be.

A chance, too, to finally run as a candidate out from her husband's shadow. Her first leadership bid, in the 2009 contest won by Tim Hudak, came when Mr. Flaherty was federal finance minister; his team was hers, and he seemed to take her third-place finish harder than she did. Her second fell within a year of his death, and by her account she struggled to focus. Now she's "come to grips with my new life," as she puts it, and she's not asked about her grief at every campaign stop.

And then there is what "feels like a second chance," she says, after a health scare of her own – one that has been the subject of recent rumours and that she chose to address when given the opportunity during the interview.

Last June, Ms. Elliott said, she was going down some steps at her cottage when one gave way and she was thrown against a wall. She was eventually airlifted to the trauma unit at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, then spent a month-and-a-half in hospital recovering from a broken temporal bone – a serious head injury, but perhaps not as severe as initially feared.

She has now "recovered completely," she said, "completely released from any further therapy." But that kind of experience "makes you think about what's important in your life," and it "made me more committed to doing something and stepping up."

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She meant that in the sense of stepping up to help others, but perhaps it could also have referred to the urgency with which she has incorporated lessons from past defeats.

Beyond her work ethic, those lessons have manifested themselves in her campaign team. She has assembled what she calls "a different kind of network" this time, with more focus on wooing the sorts of riding-level organizers who powered Mr. Brown's blowout victory last time. She brought in Fred Delorey, a former director of political operations for the federal Conservatives, as campaign manager; the air-war specialists are playing a less prominent role.

And in her strategic decisions, there has – for better or worse – been a cold-blooded focus on winning mostly absent from her previous campaigns.

While she's now comfortable eschewing easy talking points on policy questions – sharply making a detailed case in favour of accelerating the shift toward patient-driven health care, or acknowledging Ontario can no longer compete for much large-scale manufacturing and providing specific examples of how it could better capitalize on research sectors – she has also proved more willing to play to her party's base. Unlike Ms. Mulroney, she has thrown bones to social conservatives on sex education and the potential for free votes on moral issues; she also showed no hesitation denouncing the carbon tax in her party's platform, without seriously explaining how she would account for revenue the rest of the platform is contingent on.

Meanwhile, she has been far gentler in public comments about Mr. Brown – leaving the door open to his return to the party's caucus before the coming election – than have the other candidates. It's a stand she may regret if she wins, but it does seem to have helped her attract leadership support from a good number of organizers and nominated candidates loyal to him. (She firmly denies there is any deal in place with the scandal-plagued former leader.)

Whether any of this will pay off in the victory that has eluded her before is very uncertain.

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In a truncated campaign in which candidates have struggled to get their supporters registered and it's not even clear how many real members the party has, nobody really knows who is ahead.

So maybe stories like this will only count for as much as they did previously. But her campaign, itself, is not a mirage. She wants the leadership too badly for that, now. ​

Tanya Granic Allen says she aims to be a voice for those who felt “disenfranchised” by former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown. Leadership candidates for Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives spoke after their second debate on Wednesday. The Canadian Press
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