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Charismaric and principled, Maxime Bernier raised $2 million for the Conservative’s leadership campaign, more than any other candidate.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Maxime Bernier has spent the past nine years trying to disprove the saying that no one gets a second chance to make a first impression.

For many Canadians, their first impression of Mr. Bernier goes back to 2008 when it was revealed that he had left confidential documents at the house of his girlfriend, allegedly jeopardizing the country's security. After enduring weeks of pummelling in the press and the House of Commons, Mr. Bernier resigned as foreign affairs minister. L'affaire Bernier saw the one-time rising star relegated to the backbenches.

"On the positive side, I had lots of visibility. On the negative side, it was very bad visibility," Mr. Bernier says in a recent interview.

Nine years later, Mr. Bernier hopes the Conservative Party's leadership convention on May 27 will give him a second chance to make a lasting impression. With two weeks to go, Mr. Bernier is the front-runner in the race. He has built an extensive pan-Canadian organization that has raised more than $2-million, or more than any other candidate.

If he wins, the event will be the culmination of years of speeches, blog postings and low-key meetings for Mr. Bernier as he slowly built a leadership campaign.

"I had invitations across the country from riding associations and chambers of commerce, so I gave economic speeches, people got to know me. They saw that I had good ideas, that I wasn't an idiot," Mr. Bernier says.

Known as a "loner" in Conservative circles in Ottawa during that period, Mr. Bernier regularly took policy positions that irked the Prime Minister's Office. His 2014 call for a referendum on the abolition of the Senate, former senior Conservative officials said, especially riled then-prime minister Stephen Harper.

Still, Mr. Bernier was carefully crafting the public persona of a principled conservative who feels as much at home in Alberta as in his riding of Beauce, considered the entrepreneurial heart of Quebec.

"He pitches himself as [the Albertan from Quebec], and I can tell you, talking to Maxime is like talking to one of my friends from Alberta here. He gets it," says Mike Ellis, the PC MLA for Calgary-West.

In the days after his resignation in 2008, Mr. Bernier spent a week in isolation at a monastery in the Eastern Townships to reflect on his life. Shortly thereafter, he returned to his riding, south of Quebec City, to ask his constituents for another mandate to redeem himself.

The son of a popular local politician and an unstoppable door-knocker, Mr. Bernier went on to crush his opponents in the 2008 election with 62 per cent of the vote – the biggest single majority in all of the ridings in Quebec.

At the time, he thought his backbench purgatory was over. Instead, Mr. Harper kept Mr. Bernier out of the limelight. However, this also freed him up to launch his slow-but-steady leadership campaign.

Mr. Bernier never engaged in manoeuvres to undermine Mr. Harper's leadership, but he also continuously highlighted the fact he would run a more principled government. One of Mr. Bernier's top advisers said the campaign has operated from the start on the basis that, unlike the Harper Conservatives, it would never pander to any special-interest group.

"We don't want to repeat Stephen Harper's mistake," says Mr. Bernier's top policy adviser, Martin Masse, "which was to say that we would dilute our principles, we would buy votes, we would pretend that we are something other than true libertarian conservatives."

Late last month, Mr. Bernier grabbed the endorsement of another top contender in the race, businessman and TV personality Kevin O'Leary, who unexpectedly dropped out. Mr. Bernier has also quietly won support among social conservatives. He promised them that he would not stop MPs from tabling bills on issues such as abortion, and he would defend their "democratic rights" in the House.

Thanks to a voting system that gives equal weight to all ridings in the Conservative leadership campaign, Mr. Bernier stands to benefit from a big edge in Quebec, where he is best known. That could give him a boost in the early rounds of voting in the preferential ballot.

At first blush, Mr. Bernier is a typical politician. He wears nifty suits, loves to work a room and is into long-distance running. The bilingual 54-year-old Quebecker has two teenage daughters, a law degree and experience in the private sector as vice-president at a major insurance company. After keeping his private life to himself for years, Mr. Bernier has recently started to present his girlfriend of the past seven years, community worker Catherine Letarte, in his campaign literature.

But what most distinguishes this would-be prime minister is his profound libertarian bent, a philosophy that seeks to maximize individual freedom in all spheres of a person's life. Mr. Bernier said his main political role models are former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and ex-Texas GOP congressman Ron Paul. He's also a fan of thinkers such as writer Ayn Rand and economist Friedrich Hayek, whose ideas pepper his speeches and influence his platform.

Quoting Mr. Hayek in a 2009 blog posting, Mr. Bernier said that "liberty and responsibility" are the two central planks of his political philosophy. In his Ottawa office, he keeps a wooden plaque with the inscription "John Galt" in large letters. The name refers to a character in Ms. Rand's 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, which rails against government and advocates self-interest as a key driver to creating a better world.

"I like to describe myself as a conservative who believes in free markets and individual freedoms," Mr. Bernier said in the interview. "I have no problem being described as a libertarian on economic issues."

These philosophical positions are one of his biggest strengths in the current race, but also one of the biggest weaknesses for some fellow Conservatives. Mr. Bernier has said he would be able to win 40 out of 78 ridings in Quebec in the next election, but he has only the support of two fellow MPs from the province, despite his status as the native son.

"Maxime ran an excellent campaign based on very precise ideas, but in our view, they are not pragmatic enough," said Conservative MP Gérard Deltell, who supports the more centrist candidacy of Erin O'Toole. "Quebec is a very particular political territory, as everyone knows, and one must always be prudent and not take anything for granted."

Still, Mr. Bernier has rejected all requests to water down his proposals. In 2010, he called for the abolition of $40-billion in social and health transfers from the federal government to the provinces. Mr. Bernier added Ottawa should cut taxes and let the provinces use up the fiscal room to fund services such as health care without federal oversight.

This idea is now in his platform, stating he would welcome an increased role for the private sector in health care.

"Canadians are ready for a two-tier system," Mr. Bernier says. "It's not revolutionary. It already exists in Europe, where there are no waiting lists and they spend less on health care. Provinces will decide how much private-sector involvement they want, whether it's more or less."

Mr. Bernier officially launched his leadership campaign on May 15 of last year. While most Conservatives waited for former high-profile ministers such as Peter MacKay or Jason Kenney to make up their minds, Mr. Bernier laid out policies as he travelled the country.

The snickers in Conservative ranks gave way to grudging respect for the candidate now setting the tone for a debate on the future of his party.

He gambled big on his first announcement: a promise to get rid of supply management in Canada's agricultural sector. The quota system in the dairy, poultry and egg markets is a $2.6-billion annual tax on Canadian consumers, he said, as he took direct aim at a policy supported by all major parties in the country.

"It was a personal, ideological choice," he now says of his first policy pronouncement. "Look, I couldn't go out and say that I believe in free markets, except for supply management. I would have lost all credibility."

The policy entrenched Mr. Bernier's brand as a free-marketer, especially since his own riding and the surrounding area is home to a number of farms that benefit from supply management. In fact, one of his top opponents, Conservative MP Andrew Scheer, has built a large part of his campaign in Quebec with the help of farmers opposed to Mr. Bernier.

Conservative MP Tony Clement, a former federal leadership candidate, said Mr. Bernier won his support by showcasing an unprecedented willingness to take on the powerful agricultural lobby.

"The biggest dragon that he slayed early on was the common attack on a Quebec politician, which is that he will take the interests of Quebec over the interests of the country," Mr. Clement said in an interview. "He showed the rest of the country that even if there were some people in Quebec that were upset at his policy positions, he was going to take a principled position for Canada."

If he wins the leadership, Mr. Bernier will still need to persuade Conservative members at next year's convention in Halifax to change the party's platform, particularly on supply management.

Mr. Bernier still has a lot of work to do to transform his ideas into a concrete action plan. He is calling for large-scale tax cuts for individuals (including a flat rate of 15 per cent for all income between $15,001 and $100,000) and corporations (down from 15 to 10 per cent). Through it all, Mr. Bernier would give himself two years to eliminate the deficit, without cutting pensions or employment insurance, while starting to open up the airline and telecom industries to greater foreign competition.

The key will be persuading the country between now and the 2019 general election that the massive changes would boost economic growth but still look after the needs of poorer Canadians. He predicts a temporary drop in the polls as he sustains attacks from the Liberals, but said he would work with his caucus and his shadow cabinet to determine the best way to implement his platform.

"Canadians are going to save $30-billion. However, we will do it with the surpluses. I will not put Canadians deeper into debt, so it will take surpluses to be able to launch our fiscal reform for individual taxpayers," he said.

Asked whether Canada is ready for such radical changes, Mr. Bernier said his government would be as ambitious as the one that brought Quebec out of its "dark ages" in the early 1960s.

"I'd call it a Canadian Quiet Revolution. But instead of being about big government, it would be based on the free market," he said.

After Wednesday’s final debate, Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch called Kevin O’Leary’s departure from the race “fabulous” for her. O’Leary has thrown his support behind Maxime Bernier.

The Canadian Press

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