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Stephen Harper may not be a unifier, but he's certainly a clarifier.

Deborah Grey was right when she said of her former Reform colleague earlier this week: "Stephen has never been a populist." Nor has he ever been a pragmatist. He sees himself as a man of principle, what some might call an ideologue. He speaks softly but carries few qualifiers.

As such, word that he's scoping out a run for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance serves to clarify matters.

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Back when he was an MP between 1993 and 1997, Mr. Harper and I had lunch one day at a delicatessen near Parliament Hill. He brilliantly dissected Liberal strengths and weaknesses. He also revealed his frustration over the basic fault line within Reform: whether to be a party of principle -- an NDP of the right -- or a pragmatic party competing for power.

Mr. Harper was obviously discomfited by the populist tendencies of his leader, Preston Manning. He saw them as little more than an excuse to turn away from core principles in favour of the path to power so well travelled by mainstream parties.

Thus, when Reform, a party dedicated to free-market ideals, came out with its platform for the 1997 election, it sought to outdo the Liberals in devotion to the public health-care system. Mr. Manning opted for the Rick Anderson school of clever politics. Mr. Harper would have articulated a pure conservative position: that the way to save health care was through market forces, not further socialization.

Which brings us back to the matter of clarity. You may not know from minute to minute where Stockwell Day stands on unification with the Tories (or on unemployment insurance or a flat tax), but you can count on Mr. Harper's position remaining consistent from decade to decade. And that position differs markedly from Mr. Manning's view.

Yesterday, Mr. Manning laid hands on the efforts of his closest associates to break away from the Alliance, if necessary, in favour of "principled co-operation" with the Joe Clark Tories. The guy who set out to destroy the dreaded PCs in the late 1980s, choosing to run directly against Mr. Clark in 1988, has thrown in the towel and is saying it's okay to sup again with the devil. The reason: That's the route to power.

But that's not Mr. Harper's way, at least judging from his history. It is not that he's opposed to power; it's just that power without principle is not nearly as meaningful to him as principle without power. He would rather stick to his guns and hope the public eventually moves his way. In the meantime, if he can't have power, he can at least satisfy himself with influencing governments through the quality of his ideas.

Few people know the inside of Mr. Harper's mind better than University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan. The pair worked together in the early days at Reform headquarters and shared a distaste for Mr. Manning's brand of populism. Prof. Flanagan views a Harper candidacy as an opportunity to return the Reform/Alliance movement to its ideological roots. "Principle would come first. I think a party led by Stephen would tend toward intellectual consistency. Policies would be expected to fit together." He also sees a Harper-led Alliance as antithetical to the unite-the-right movement.

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Not that Mr. Harper is unalterably opposed to some forms of co-operation. But his endgame would never be unification. Supping with the devil would probably make him choke.

All of which makes this weekend's gathering at Mont-Tremblant of Mr. Clark's Conservatives and Mr. Manning's closest Alliance progeny all the more interesting to watch. Mr. Harper won't be there, but his presence will be felt.

In choosing this particular week to let word slip that he will be leaving the National Citizens' Coalition at year's end, Mr. Harper has accomplished several goals. First, he destabilizes Mr. Day before the Alliance leader has fully committed himself to running again. Second, he sends the message to the Alliance national council, which meets tonight to decide a March or June date for a convention, that an alternative exists to Mr. Day. So get on with it before Mr. Day can render further damage to the party.

Most important, Mr. Harper's move alters the unite-the-right dynamics. It is one thing for Alliance members to abandon a sinking ship captained by Mr. Day. It is another when a Great White Hope (to some) indicates his willingness to take the helm. Even die-hard Manning loyalists will have to recalibrate. It probably wouldn't be easy to explain in Medicine Hat or Chilliwack why you opted for Mr. Clark over a true conservative such as Mr. Harper.

Having said that, many Alliance stalwarts, both dissidents and not, have accompanied Mr. Manning on his intellectual trek toward pragmatism. They won't be satisfied resting on principle from the Opposition benches. Some of them are already looking for a pro-unity leadership candidate.

If Mr. Harper were to become leader and stay true to himself, a split within the Alliance still appears inevitable. The end result could be symmetrically pleasing: the NDP, possibly reinvigorated, on the left; a principled Alliance on the right; and the Liberals and Tory/Manning coalition duking it out for power.

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Then again, given the difficulty Canadian conservatives have encountered cobbling together coalitions over the past century, the symmetry that Mr. Harper offers could condemn the right to perpetual opposition, which would distress Mr. Manning far more than his ex-protege.

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