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The Globe and Mail

Conservative leadership race still a toss-up: party officials

Conservative leadership candidates, from left, Chris Alexander, Pierre Lemieux, Erin O'Toole, Michael Chong, Rick Peterson, Lisa Raitt, Steven Blaney, Kevin O'Leary and Andrew Saxton each spoke to members and supporters at a meet and greet in Burlington, Ont., on Sunday, March 5, 2017. On May 27, Conservative party members will choose a new leader.

Christopher Katsarov/THE CANADIAN PRESS

An informal survey of Conservative riding association presidents in all regions of the country suggests no candidate is heading toward the May 27 vote with an obvious path to victory.

Throughout Canada, businessman and TV star Kevin O'Leary is the most polarizing figure. He has lots of Conservatives talking and predicting victory against the Trudeau Liberals, but he has yet to persuade many others that he would be a good fit to succeed Stephen Harper.

As part of the survey, there were also high levels of support for a small group of Conservative MPs – most notably Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch, Erin O'Toole, Lisa Raitt and Andrew Scheer – but no one emerged as a clear front-runner.

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After membership sales closed last week, The Globe and Mail spoke with the presidents of dozens of Conservative electoral district associations (EDAs), which are a key feature of the party's grassroots network of party members, supporters and organizers.

The results of the interviews have no scientific value, and they tend to reflect the views of long-time members rather than new supporters who were attracted to the race by individual campaigns. Still, these EDA presidents traditionally have a grasp of the popular sentiment in their communities and stand to have influence over other party members on decision day.

With a ranked ballot featuring 14 candidates, voters are currently juggling with seemingly countless scenarios as they decide who will be their first, second, third or even tenth choice.

"It is, to my eye, almost impossible to determine how that vote will split out," said Tony Fogarassy, president of the Vancouver Granville Conservative association. "There seems to be consensus that some candidates who might be viewed as polarizing or one-dimensional may have strong first-ballot support, but then that support will likely fall away quite quickly."

Although he was the last candidate to enter the race, Mr. O'Leary is gaining attention across the country, but not always favourably.

"Everybody's talking about Kevin," said Donald Foster, president of the Oakville North-Burlington association west of Toronto.

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Jeff Slater, a member of the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding near Victoria, B.C., said he knows who'll get his vote for leader.

"Kevin O'Leary, and I have no second choice," Mr. Slater said. "The party needs someone different."

Muriel Power, who leads the Conservative EDA in the PEI riding of Cardigan, added that Mr. O'Leary "knows the economy. He is a no-BS type of guy; what you see is what you get."

But in Kings-Hants, north of Halifax, Marie Yvonne Olson said she is down to a list of three or four candidates to vote for – but already knows who will not be on her ballot.

"Definitely not Kevin O'Leary. You can cross him out right off the bat," she said.

Roy Eappen, the head of the Outremont EDA in Montreal, said Mr. O'Leary "will not be in my top 10," referring to the maximum number of candidates who can be ranked on the ballot. "I'm a big Maxime Bernier supporter," Mr. Eappen said. "He's really worked hard."

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In Ontario, which has 121 ridings, support is strong for three MPs who represent the province in Ottawa, namely Ms. Leitch, Mr. O'Toole and Ms. Raitt. In addition, the two purported front-runners – Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Bernier – elicit strong support, with Mr. Scheer and Michael Chong also part of the mix.

Diane Suski, president of the Sudbury Conservative Association, is supporting Ms. Leitch and joined her campaign team at the end of January. "I really like her position on immigration … making sure that Canadian values are top of mind," Ms. Suski said.

In Quebec, there is some support for local MP Steven Blaney, the former public safety minister, but also a sense that Mr. Bernier is in first place over all. Mahmoud Rida said he will offer his first-ballot support to Mr. Blaney, for whom he once worked.

While Mr. Blaney and Mr. Bernier have been at one another's throat throughout the race, Mr. Rida said he will not hesitate to vote for Mr. Bernier as his second choice.

"The most important thing for me is for the next leader to be bilingual," said the president of the Conservative EDA in the Montreal riding of Bourassa.

Donald Ivanski, president of the Hochelaga EDA in eastern Montreal, said Mr. Bernier "comes out on top" once you consider all factors. He said candidates such as Ms. Leitch "tend to splinter the party," while he described Mr. Bernier as approachable and close to the base. "All around, I think he has what it takes to get the job done," Mr. Ivanski said.

In Western Canada, Mr. Bernier and Mr. O'Leary are on many lists. Mr. Scheer's name comes up more consistently, although members said they will also gravitate toward Ms. Raitt and Mr. O'Toole.

Beth Berg, president of the Yorkton–Melville Conservative association in southern Saskatchewan, said "Andrew Scheer is quite popular in this area."

Paul Bunner, president of the Edmonton-Strathcona association, which is the only federal riding in Alberta currently represented by the NDP, said his mind isn't made up and he doesn't speak for his members, but he's giving Mr. Chong "a very long and serious look."

"He has many of the skills that are necessary to compete for votes in the middle of the voter spectrum, which I think is really important," he said.

It remains unclear how Conservative members still on the fence will make up their minds. There is only one official debate left, in Toronto on April 26, which leaves few other opportunities for Conservative members to form their opinions.

All campaigns are bombarding eligible members with e-mails and phone calls, but some voters are still waiting for alliances to be forged among candidates to help them make up their minds.

"I think there is still a lot of elbowing among the different campaigns to come," said Gilles Bernatchez, who heads the Conservative EDA in Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou.

Without a clear front-runner in the campaign, many party members are using an elimination process to determine who remains on their list of potential candidates. "Sometimes, I'm mad at myself over who they are," said Sharon Vokey, president of the Conservative EDA in Bonavista-Burin-Trinity in Newfoundland and Labrador.

She added she's "switched around a few times," echoing a common refrain among Conservative members who have yet to make a final choice.

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