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Participants prepare for the start of the Conservative leadership candidates’ debate in Moncton on Tuesday.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

There are currently about 85,000 members of the Conservative Party of Canada.

That number helps explain why nobody – not even the candidates themselves – can really claim to know who's ahead in the Tories' 14-person leadership campaign.

The membership rolls are thin enough to suggest that well-organized contenders in the contest to succeed Stephen Harper could swamp their party with new sign-ups. But we won't know the extent to which they have done so, or what the voting pool looks like, until the campaigns submit all the membership forms they have collected, which they need not do until two months before the May 27 vote.

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Another wrinkle adds to the ambiguity. Because the Tories have banned cash payments for memberships, we're waiting to see how candidates adapt to a different imperative than in campaigns past: the need to find people willing to pay their own $15 membership fee by credit card or cheque, rather than campaigns being able to submit lump-sum payments for new recruits.

Despite that murkiness, Conservative insiders still have plenty of thoughts on how the race is shaking out. With caveats out of the way, a few of the more common takes:

An upper tier of candidates is emerging

Telegenic libertarian MP Maxime Bernier initially seems the sort of candidate who gets lots of media attention by virtue of having interesting policy views but lacks the ground game that typically decides leadership contests. But on the contrary, there is a sense among neutral observers – and even on other campaigns – that after getting off to a quick start he is currently at the front of the pack organizationally.

Andrew Scheer is far from a household name, despite having been Speaker of the House of Commons. But the young Saskatchewan MP has a lot else going for him. He is the most serious candidate from west of Ontario, reasonably bilingual and just socially conservative enough to win over the like-minded without looking too scary to others. He is also sufficiently pleasant to be an easy second choice for Conservatives on their party's ranked ballot, and he's quietly organizing well enough to put himself in position to potentially emerge as a consensus choice.

Kellie Leitch's sudden transformation from Red Tory to Donald Trump impersonator has generated a lot of bad will. But beyond playing to an existing corner of the membership, her bashing of "elites" and immigrants who don't hold "Canadian values" is clearly designed to generate sign-ups through social media – and likely effective enough to keep her competitive.

A trio of other Ontario MPs – Michael Chong, Erin O'Toole and Lisa Raitt – could be right in the game as well. But Mr. Bernier, Mr. Scheer and Ms. Leitch are the ones getting the most organizational buzz at this stage.

The field should thin soon

Anyone who tried to watch this week's 14-candidate debate will be relieved to know that most insiders expect fundraising challenges to force at least a couple of candidates to exit before year's end, when contestants are required to pony up another $50,000 deposit in addition to the equal sum they invested to enter.

Opinions vary on who will drop out, but there just isn't enough money out there to support all the lower-tier candidates – among them MPs Chris Alexander, Steven Blaney, Deepak Obhrai, Andrew Saxton and Brad Trost.

Of course, it's also possible another candidate will join. And, yes, Kevin O'Leary is still flirting with it.

It will still be too crowded for a runaway win

Even if the field does narrow, this has the look of a race – with at least a handful of candidates with modest but significant ideological or geographic followings – in which nobody will be close to a majority of first-choice votes.

If so, it stands to benefit someone such as Mr. Scheer. And it spells trouble for Ms. Leitch, who, by virtue of a long history of personality conflicts, was a polarizing figure among Conservatives even before she struck her populist posture.

To win, she probably needs to defy predictions and enlist enough recruits to be north of 40 per cent off the top.

Candidates with weak French will keep suffering

It's an open question how much the ability to speak both official languages – which a good number of the anglophone candidates proved to be lacking in this week's bilingual debate – matters to most Conservative voters. But the party brass overseeing the leadership process has sure tried to make it matter.

Of the remaining three debates scheduled, the next one will be entirely in French, and the following two will be bilingual. Only the very first debate, before many would-be voters had tuned in, was entirely in English.

At the Tories' highest levels, there is a common view that they need a leader linguistically capable of building off the gains in Quebec that were a rare bright spot for the party in last year's election. If the grassroots share that view, it's bad news for candidates – Ms. Leitch and Ms. Raitt are two of the more obvious examples – whose struggles in their second language have already been laid plain. And it could be incentive for Mr. O'Leary to stay out.

A few votes could count for a lot

If you're a leadership voter in much of Atlantic Canada or Quebec – where many Conservative riding associations have only dozens of members, versus hundreds elsewhere – you're going to pack a big punch. That's because the Conservatives use a points-based voting system in which every riding is weighted equally, no matter how many people cast ballots there.

That stands to benefit candidates who successfully fish in the waters not teaming with fellow Tories. Ms. Raitt and Mr. O'Toole, for instance, might benefit from being the only candidates with strong Maritime ties. It would also seem helpful to Mr. Bernier, although there is some chatter that despite his general strength he's struggling to bring fellow Quebeckers on board.

For the rest of us, the fact that it's not a simple one-member, one-vote process just makes it all the more treacherous to get the lay of the land.

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