Tom Long says he will support Preston Manning's bid for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance because he has the experience and the skills to win the next federal election.
Mr. Long, who placed third in last weekend's first-ballot vote, emerged from seclusion yesterday to throw his support behind Mr. Manning rather than front-runner Stockwell Day for the final ballot on July 8.
"I believe he is the one that can help us win the big breakthrough that we need in this province so we can go on and win a national majority government," he said at a lunch for about 200 Alliance supporters. "Preston, I'm with you all the way,"
The nearly 22,000 votes garnered by the long-time adviser to Ontario Premier Mike Harris are key to the next round of voting, and Mr. Long's support is crucial to Mr. Manning's attempt to erase Mr. Day's 10,000-vote lead.
The guessing game is how many of his supporters Mr. Long will take with him to the Manning campaign.
Several key Long organizers across Canada have signed on with Mr. Day, as have two Ontario cabinet ministers, Robert Runciman and Chris Stockwell, who is on leave from his post as Alberta's Treasurer.
No Ontario cabinet ministers have publicly indicated they will be supporting Mr. Manning. Municipal Affairs Minister Tony Clement, co-chairman of the Long campaign and one of the architects of the Alliance, is expected to remain neutral.
Manning supporters say, however, that the high-profile moves to the Day campaign camouflage growing support for the former Reform Party leader among the Alliance rank and file.
"One of the reasons that Tom Long is comfortable in choosing to support Preston in the final ballot is that he's been hearing from a lot of his people . . . that they would prefer Preston," senior Manning adviser Rick Anderson said.
Mr. Day said yesterday in Vancouver that he was confident he would receive the help of most of Mr. Long's supporters.
"I'm so excited from coast to coast at the number of people from Tom Long's campaign that have joined our campaign," he said.
Dean French, Mr. Day's Ontario campaign manager, said he believed 90 per cent of Mr. Long's workers at the constituency level in vote-rich Ontario were coming over to Mr. Day's campaign.
His comment was countered by Alliance MP John Reynolds, a Manning supporter, who said, "There's some names there [in the Day campaign] but we've got the real core."
In his brief speech, Mr. Long offered little substantiation for his decision other than to say that he admired Mr. Manning's willingness to put his job on the line by disbanding the Reform Party in a bid to combine forces with disaffected members of the Progressive Conservative Party.
He said that during the three-month campaign that preceded last weekend's initial leadership vote, "my opinion of Preston Manning has done nothing but go up."
Sources within his campaign say that he is still upset that Mr. Day did not move decisively to refute anti-homosexual comments by his supporters that were aimed at members of the Long campaign.