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Conservative Party leadership front-runner Stephen Harper has hired a former senior Parti Québécois staffer as his chief Quebec organizer, at the head of a team drawn from former organizers for nationalist parties.

Richard Décarie, a senior aide in the separatist Quebec governments of Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, is heading Mr. Harper's Quebec organizing team, charged with signing up backers to Conservative Party memberships.

The team is drawn from former organizers for the PQ and for the soft-nationalist Action Démocratique du Québec, which supported sovereignty in the 1995 Quebec referendum but now favours more powers for the province within Canada.

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"Some worked for the Parti Québécois and the ADQ, principally," Mr. Décarie said in an interview. "So we are speaking of a base that did not feel drawn to the Progressive Conservative Party."

Mr. Décarie said that former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney managed to ally himself with Quebec nationalists, borrowing organization from the PQ and Quebec Liberal Party, but Mr. Harper wants to draw conservative-minded members into the party to create a permanent membership base.

While Mr. Mulroney's strategy of building ties to Quebec nationalists brought electoral success, Mr. Harper criticized it in the past.

As the Reform Party's constitutional critic until 1997, he took a hard line against Quebec nationalists, attacked Mr. Mulroney's recruitment of them and called efforts to reach a constitutional compromise, such as the 1997 Calgary Declaration, "appeasement."

"This is the same kind of 'moderate' approach that was responsible for putting Lucien Bouchard and his separatist buddies in the federal cabinet," he wrote in a 1997 article. "Quebec nationalists will not be accommodated by rhetorical flourishes. They want to be accommodated in their own sovereign state."

Mr. Décarie, as chief of staff to onetime Quebec industry minister Rita Dionne-Marsolais, was a senior PQ staffer from 1994 to 1996, under both Mr. Parizeau and Mr. Bouchard.

He had worked previously for Liberal premiers Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson, but switched parties in 1994, complaining they should have held their own referendum on sovereignty.

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"I am in favour of sovereignty and I will work in that direction," Mr. Décarie told La Presse then.

All of the candidates for the Conservative leadership are busily putting together their campaign teams. Tony Clement, the former Ontario health minister, held a news conference in Toronto yesterday to announce that John Crosbie, a colourful former federal Tory cabinet minister, is joining Tom Long, a veteran backroom organizer in Ontario, as a campaign co-chair.

Mr. Clement was asked by reporters to explain how he plans to overcome the media attention that has been given to Belinda Stronach, the former chief executive of Magna International who has no political experience but has attracted the support of people such as former Ontario premier Mike Harris, Mr. Clement's former boss.

"I think the question for her is how is she going to win given the amount of momentum that the Tony Clement campaign has," he replied, adding that he believes his is the only truly national campaign.

Yesterday, Mr. Harper accused Ms. Stronach of failing to explain fully what she meant this week when she said she would welcome an increased private role in the delivery of health services.

"I'm very unclear as to what Ms. Stronach's position on health care is," he said. The Canadian Alliance, Mr. Harper's party before the merger with the Tories, found itself in hot water during the 2000 election campaign when its leadership was unable to explain clearly its intentions on private health care.

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Ms. Stronach said she is looking at expanding an Alberta model, which allows more private delivery of publicly insured services.

Mr. Harper also expressed concern that a candidate with deep financial pockets might be able to affect the final result if telephone or Internet voting is allowed.

With a report from Gloria Galloway

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