Belinda Stronach has won the support of a group of key Tory organizers in Quebec, a province that could swing the Conservative leadership outcome.
But opponents are accusing the millionaire businesswoman of using her riches to buy up longtime backroomers and warn she could do the same with party members.
"We call her Magna Bucks," said Richard Decarie, a former Tory strategist now organizing for former Alliance leader Stephen Harper in Quebec.
"They made their decision based on dollars. We are scared if memberships are bought, the contest has no weight."
The backroomers were reportedly offered between $35,000 and $50,000 each for about two months' work, said Gord Haugh, a longtime aide and organizer for leadership hopeful Tony Clement in Ontario.
"It's not a pretty game," he said. "It just makes it an uneven playing field when someone can go in and - without regard to cost - buy up whatever they want. That's not what politics is about."
Mr. Haugh also said Ms. Stronach's team has tried to woo away his chief organizer for B.C. and Alberta.
Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, one of Ms. Stronach's key Quebec organizers, said Friday that while his campaign has a substantial budget, the defectors were not swayed by money.
"It was an old network of friends who are very happy to be together again," he said. "Do we have a budget? Yes, we have a budget. But that's our challenge - to regroup the old network. There's no big magic behind that."
Stronach, who campaigned Friday in Calgary, would not comment directly on the criticism when she arrived in Niagara Falls, Ont., for the Ontario Progressive Conservative party's weekend policy meeting.
"My campaign is based on ideas," Stronach said as she arrived at the conference, where she was hosting a hospitality suite.
In separate meetings starting last week, about half a dozen high-profile Quebec organizers sat down with Ms. Stronach, Mr. Clement and Mr. Harper. Among those who opted to join Ms. Stronach were Dany Renaud, Bernard Cote, Luc Ouellet, Jose Nicholas and George Villeneuve, said Mr. Nolin.
Three organizers who had signed on to work for Mr. Clement's campaign also defected, including Leo Housakos.
Mr. Nolin said many of the recruits have worked with him on Tory campaigns dating back to 1984.
Ms. Stronach's efforts may be well-placed. Quebec is virtually a blank slate, where selling a few memberships could mean a sweep on ballot day.
Under the system negotiated during the merger between the former Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties, every federal riding was given equal weight in selecting the leader.
That means Quebec's 75 ridings outweigh Alberta and British Columbia combined, despite the dearth of party members.
Only about 300 of the 53,000 mail-in ratification votes to approve the merger last month came from Alliance party members in Quebec.
Michael Fortier, Mr. Harper's campaign co-chair, said Quebec ridings like Trois-Rivieres had a combined membership of just 31 people in December. Terrebonne-Blainville had 15, and Rimouski-Neigette-et-la-Mitis had only five.
That means that, unlike many Alberta ridings with 5,000 or more party members, it wouldn't take much work to tilt the balance in many Quebec seats, said Mr. Fortier.
And on March 20, each will be worth the same 100 points in the leadership tally as any other federal riding. In total, Quebec will add up to 7,500 points, nearly half the 15,401 points a candidate needs to win on the first ballot.
Mr. Fortier, who lives in Montreal, agreed that Ms. Stronach used her money to buy the support of the Quebec circle.
"They're a well-oiled campaign, they've got a lot of money, and some of them may have actually made the decision to go to her because commercially it was perhaps an interesting proposition," he said.
"You have to differentiate between people who are volunteers and just do things because they think it's the right thing .-.-. and people who, while being Conservatives, also make a living out of organizing campaigns."
But the decision by some to join Ms. Stronach isn't a fatal blow, he added.
"We would have liked these people to work with us," he said, but there's a "whole host" of Alliance members willing to organizer for Harper.
"They exist and they're with us."
Mr. Decarie said fears are mounting within the Quebec wing of another scandal like that in 2000, when money flowing through Alliance leadership candidate Tom Long's campaign wound up buying memberships for some 3,000 people in the Gaspe region. The people turned out to be long gone or deceased.
"If (Ms. Stronach's organizers) start buying memberships it could be very damaging for the party for sure," he said. "The Conservatives who are working on the ground are very disappointed with what they are seeing."
A Stronach insider called the fears "highly speculative."
Mr. Harper wants an all-candidates debate in French as soon as possible, Mr. Decarie said. Both Mr. Clement and Mr. Harper are bilingual. Mr. Harper hopes to reveal the unilingual Ms. Stronach's key weakness in the province. But Mr. Fortier acknowledges Mr. Harper should probably have devoted more time to Quebec during his period in the Opposition Leader's office.
"He'd probably tell you you're right, he should have."
Mr. Nolin said English Canada is far more obsessed with Ms. Stronach's lack of French than Quebeckers. He said "respect for the francophone difference" is far more important, something Ms. Stronach demonstrated when she met with Quebec organizers on Sunday.
Insiders said former prime minister Brian Mulroney's organizers are already working for Ms. Stronach behind the scenes. A formal endorsement would boost her profile, Mr. Fortier said.
Mr. Nolin said the two are friends and speak regularly.
Shawn Cleary, a former Harper official in N.S., said this week he quit the campaign because former Alliance members are excluding former Tories from Nova Scotia riding associations.
Gord Gaugh, a longtime aide and organizer for Mr. Clement in Ontario, revealed Friday that Mr. Cleary is now working for the Clement camp in Nova Scotia.