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Conservative leadership race divides along new poles

The two ends of the Conservative Party used to be the Red Tories and Reformers. Now, the two poles in the party's leadership race are libertarians and social conservatives.

In one corner, there's Maxime Bernier, the free-market libertarian who says he is fighting for individual freedoms, who promises to slash government, abolish untouchable policies like supply management for dairy farmers, expand the private sector's role in health care, and launch what he calls a "Canadian Quiet Revolution."

In the other, there's Andrew Scheer, the social conservative who talks about values, a conservative in the traditionalist sense of the word, who is backed by most of the pro-lifers in the Conservative caucus though he carefully promises not to initiate policies – like anti-abortion legislation – that could divide the party, and lose an election.

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Mr. Bernier is widely considered to be the front-runner. Mr. Scheer is believed by many close observers of the race to be his nearest challenger – he's probably in second.

Both represent ideological constituencies that are political minorities in Canada. Both are trying to tone down some of their views. But both represent brands of conservatism that in some ways clash – a live-and-let-live, laissez-faire emphasis on personal freedom versus a focus on values, morality and tradition.

Maxime Bernier is pro-choice, believes in legalizing marijuana and, before he flip-flopped during the leadership race, supported the Liberals' Bill C-16 to ban discrimination against transgender people. Those are red flags for many staunch social conservatives. Andrew Scheer promises to give a tax break to parents who home-school their children and blasted Mr. Bernier's plan to end the supply management system that protects dairy farmers.

There is overlap, of course – Conservatives all voice support for lower taxes and smaller government. Many candidates, like Erin O'Toole, seen by some as a possible compromise contender, sit between the two poles. There have been other forces in this leadership race, including populism embraced in different ways by Kellie Leitch and Kevin O'Leary. But Ms. Leitch seems to have faded and Mr. O'Leary left. It's the libertarian versus so-con dynamic that's driving this race down the stretch.

Part of it is the surprising rise of Mr. Bernier, a man with purist free-market views. He's not just a believer in lower taxes, he thinks it's the only way to freedom. He also thinks central banks are dangerous and an eventual return to the gold standard would be better.

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In this race, he conveyed a series of attention-grabbing economically conservative policies –slashing taxes, cutting government support for industry, killing supply management for dairy, and a general pitch that he's fighting for freedom. He's not talking about incremental change; he told The Globe and Mail's Daniel Leblanc he plans a "Canadian Quiet Revolution."

But when it comes to social issues where his views alienate social conservatives, Mr. Bernier has been willing to bend. He backed the legalization of marijuana a year ago, but he's not so keen to discuss it now. He initially supported the bill on transgender discrimination, then flipped.

Mr. Scheer, however, never wanted to talk about revolution. He is supported by most social conservatives in the caucus, but doesn't want to carry that banner. He's approachable and likable, and he's tried to make his smiling face the face of his campaign. He's a pro-lifer, but tries to settle the abortion issue the way Stephen Harper did: he says that if he was prime minister, his government would not initiate a bill to ban abortion. So other candidates, Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost and former MP Pierre Lemieux, outflank him as outright advocates of an abortion ban, but Mr. Scheer is still hoping to win their third-choice votes on a ranked ballot.

Mr. Scheer is running as a social conservative, but in a low-key way. He has attacked Mr. Bernier for initially supporting Bill C-16. And he promises social conservatives he'll get the doable parts of their agenda done.

"Let's get some boxes ticked," Mr. Scheer said in a May 2 debate with Mr. Trost and Mr. Lemieux hosted by the Association for Reformed Political Action, which aims to bring what it calls a "biblical perspective" to politics. Later, he pointed to his "100-per-cent pro-life voting record" in the Commons, and underlines the difference between himself and Maxime Bernier. "Because he's a libertarian," Mr. Scheer said.

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