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Erin O'Toole, with his detailed policy proposals, private-sector experience and positive persona could be the compromise candidate in crowded Tory leadership race.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

For Erin O'Toole, being second choice isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, it could win him the leadership of the federal Conservative Party.

The Toronto-area MP is one of 14 candidates in a crowded field that includes more prominent names such as Maxime Bernier and Kellie Leitch, and now, of course, celebrity businessman Kevin O'Leary.

But in a race where each riding is given equal weight and members rank their choices on a ballot, Mr. O'Toole's mix of detailed policy proposals, private-sector experience and positive persona could make him the compromise candidate in an unpredictable contest.

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He claims to have visited more ridings in the past three months than any of his rivals – and a bump from the grassroots could make all the difference when members choose their new leader on May 27.

"I want to be No. 1," Mr. O'Toole said this week in his office, across the street from Parliament Hill. "But look, I talk to everyone. And even people that may be committing to someone else, because that person is from where they live or whatever, I get that. I say, 'Look, put me No. 2.'"

In true compromise fashion, he said he also has former prime minister Stephen Harper's blessing. Sort of.

"Stephen Harper encouraged me to consider running," he said, before adding, "but he made no pledge to help anyone or support anyone."

Mr. O'Toole, a 44-year-old former Air Force captain, corporate lawyer and veterans affairs minister in Mr. Harper's government, joined the race in October. Fred DeLorey, the Conservative Party's former director of political operations who ran and lost in Peter MacKay's Nova Scotia riding, is running his campaign. But contrary to rumours, he said Jenni Byrne, the Conservatives' former national campaign manager who was saddled with much of the blame from the 2015 election loss, is not involved.

"She left politics after a good run but a very tough election. And she's a friend but she has no role in the campaign," he said.

According to fundraising numbers released this week, Mr. O'Toole raised $258,943 from October to December of last year, although he was fundraising for only part of the fourth quarter.

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The total puts him in fourth place, money-wise – behind Mr. Bernier, who took in $586,185, and Ms. Leitch, who raised $355,121. Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer came third, raising $324,545.

Mr. O'Toole rivals Mr. Scheer for the highest number of caucus supporters, with 19 MPs, and several former ones, helping his campaign. "Getting the support of sitting MPs, or someone who lost in the last election but who still has their organizations, is huge," Mr. O'Toole said.

"It's not … whose name is the most highly recognized on a list."

Which brings him to Mr. O'Leary, who joined the race in mid-January and already claims to have raised $183,962 from 1,911 donors in 24 hours. (The figures will be publicly released this spring.)

But Mr. O'Toole doesn't believe Mr. O'Leary, whom he accuses of holding "classically Liberal positions" on everything from defence to gun ownership, will woo members to the party.

"There's a big difference between somebody clicking 'like' because they saw an episode of Dragon's Den or Shark Tank," he said. "Does those likes translate into memberships in the Conservative Party? I don't think they do."

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Mr. O'Toole's policy proposals include meeting NATO commitments, allowing provinces to develop privately administered health services and a plan called Generation Kickstart, which would give young people under 30 a sizable tax credit. He also vows to stand up for farmers, veterans and firearms owners.

He also doesn't support Ms. Leitch's plan to screen immigrants for "Canadian values," a proposal Mr. O'Toole said she has never properly explained.

Mr. O'Toole said he also disagrees with U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration ban because it provides a "false sense of security." He pointed to the fact that terror suspect Aaron Driver, who died during a confrontation with RCMP last August, was the son of a Canadian Forces member.

"It wasn't an immigrant. It wasn't a refugee. So I take security very seriously, and I won't put up with BS or stereotyping," he said. "Let's have a real talk about it."

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