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Politics Final push for votes this week in Conservative leadership race

Conservative Party leadership candidates shake hands following a debate last month in Toronto, where members are set to vote for a new leader this Saturday.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Conservative leadership campaigns are making a final push for votes this week before party members gather in Toronto on Saturday to name their new leader.

Most camps believe a majority of their supporters have already mailed in their votes, although some complain that supporters never received the ballots or they were delayed. Campaigns are now concentrating their efforts on reaching out to members who live near one of 14 polling stations scattered across the country, including the Toronto Congress Centre, where members can vote on May 27.

"There is a lot of phone calling happening right now," said Melanie Paradis, a spokeswoman for Erin O'Toole's campaign.

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Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann said 125,000 ballots had been received as of Friday – almost half of the 259,010 eligible to vote in the race – and 25,000 of them have been processed so far. Ballots must arrive by 5 p.m. on Friday at the offices of Deloitte Canada in Vaughan, north of Toronto.

Mr. Hann said the number of ballots exceeds both the 2004 leadership contest, in which Stephen Harper was elected with just fewer than 100,000 votes cast, and the 2000 Canadian Alliance leadership, in which 120,000 people voted.

"We're already the largest leadership [contest] in Canadian history," Mr. Hann said in an e-mail.

Mr. Hann said that 98.9 per cent of ballots were mailed to members successfully, and the remaining 1.1 per cent were returned as undeliverable or marked return to sender. He said anyone who has not received a ballot should reach out to the party or vote in person.

"Our goal throughout this process has been to ensure as many people can vote as possible," he said.

In order to vote, members must include a signed declaration card and a copy of a valid identification as well as a sealed ballot, which will not be opened until voting day.

Maxime Bernier's camp recently claimed that one in five ballots is being set aside for further scrutiny due to lack of sufficient identification. Mr. Hann said the party expected some of the votes wouldn't follow the specific instructions, but as long as there is a declaration form and identification included with the sealed ballot, "we're going to process the vote."

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John Reynolds, Mr. Bernier's campaign co-chair, said the perceived front-runner's volunteers went door-to-door with photocopy machines in order to help supporters, primarily elderly people, copy their identification.

"We got a lot of our votes out that way," Mr. Reynolds said.

Mr. Reynolds, a former long-time provincial and federal politician, who also co-chaired Mr. Harper's 2004 leadership bid, said he believes Mr. Bernier will have 30-per-cent support on the first ballot, at least 10 points ahead of other candidates.

"I feel very good – but you never know, it's a secret ballot," Mr. Reynolds said. "You're always going to have those butterflies in your stomach."

Pierre Lemieux's campaign manager, Steve Outhouse, said the campaign set up ballot reception centres in private homes and community halls in order to courier ballots to Deloitte on Thursday morning. In Vancouver, one of leadership contender Andrew Scheer's supporters set up a photocopy copier at his business and offered to courier the ballots on Tuesday.

"It's not a sure thing for anybody," said Hamish Marshall, Mr. Scheer's campaign manager. "This is going to be a very, very tight race."

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Michael Diamond, a spokesman for Kellie Leitch, said the campaign encouraged supporters to vote early and this week Ms. Leitch will call them to make sure.

"We considered having a self-charging phone surgically implanted into her ear," he said. "For those members who haven't voted yet, they shouldn't be surprised if they have her calling."

Some candidates are on the road as they prepare for their final convention speeches Friday night. Michael Chong is expected to hold a fundraiser in Calgary this week before heading home to his Ontario riding.

Mr. O'Toole will spend part of the week in Ottawa doing French training. "He likes to work on his accent," Ms. Paradis said.

All candidates will be given a final 10 minutes on stage on Friday and most will host hospitality suites afterward, some featuring live music.

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