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Politics Kellie Leitch says she has no regrets about Conservative leadership campaign

Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch released a campaign video in which she spent the better part of 8 1/2 minutes punctuating her message with awkward pauses and off-camera glances.

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Kellie Leitch has no regrets. Not even that video.

For the past nine months, the 46-year-old Ontario MP and pediatric orthopedic surgeon with an MBA has run an anti-elite, anti-establishment Conservative leadership campaign that centres on a proposal to screen immigrants, refugees and visitors for "anti-Canadian values" with face-to-face interviews. Ms. Leitch has defined the values as equal opportunity, hard work, helping others, generosity, freedom and tolerance.

She has been excoriated from all quarters, including her own party, for her pitch. She has been labelled a demagogue and the "karaoke version" of U.S. President Donald Trump. Her former campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, stepped down after using a term espoused by supporters of far-right ideology on Twitter. She has had to publicly reject support from white nationalists. But still, a core group of supporters likes what she's selling.

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Analysis: The many oddities of the Conservative leadership campaign

Because of her polarizing policies, party insiders don't give Ms. Leitch much chance of winning the leadership on May 27, but with an unpredictable ranked ballot system, it is certainly possible. With Kevin O'Leary's abrupt departure from the race, Maxime Bernier is now considered the front-runner.

Ms. Leitch claims to have signed up 30,000 party members – not far off from the 35,000 or so that Mr. Bernier and Mr. O'Leary claim to have sold, each, before Mr. O'Leary dropped out. A party volunteer since age 14, Ms. Leitch is believed by party insiders to have a strong get-out-the-vote team. With almost 260,000 members eligible to cast a ballot, the outcome is harder to predict. Her fundraising numbers are among the highest. Recent figures show Mr. Bernier raised $1.031-million in the first quarter of this year, followed by Mr. O'Leary at $1.029-million. Ms. Leitch raised $536,418 from the third-most contributors.

For a long and lengthy race, Ms. Leitch probably won the most headlines. And more than any of the others, she has staked both her personal and professional reputation on the outcome.

Perhaps most infamously, she sought to explain her idea in an 8 1/2-minute video that was punctuated with awkward pauses and off-camera glances. She's never sat through the whole thing, herself. "I don't watch any of my own [videos]," she said. She said the message in the video was made in earnest.

"People now at least got it straight from the horse's mouth. Albeit that I was a little nervous doing these kind of things, because it's not my natural milieu," she said.

What did Ms. Leitch make of the reaction? "That I should take acting lessons."

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Sitting in her office on Parliament Hill recently, surrounded by framed articles about her late mentor, finance minister Jim Flaherty, and a surgical textbook that lay open on the table, Ms. Leitch stood her ground on her decision to focus her campaign on immigration.

"I don't have any regrets, because I think this has been a really – and is now becoming even more so – a thoughtful dialogue that Canadians are having," she said.

She said the idea for values came early on in the campaign during the exploratory phase in late 2015 and early 2016. She decided to link it with immigration by observing what was happening globally, such as mass migration from Syria and watching European countries "grapple with these things." "When we talk and think about immigration for our country, we are fortunate that we are surrounded by three oceans," she said.

Mr. Flaherty, whom Ms. Leitch credits with initiating her run for office in 2011, died of a heart attack in April, 2014. Ms. Leitch was with him when he died but won't talk about the details.

She believes he would have supported her campaign. "I'm very confident he would have," she said.

During the race, she said she drew on a lesson she learned during the 2015 federal election campaign: Don't stop repeating the message.

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It doesn't matter that the context was the much-maligned "barbaric cultural practices" tip line, which Ms. Leitch and her fellow Conservative leadership candidate Chris Alexander announced toward the end of the campaign and which many cite as a contributing factor in the party's election loss.

For Ms. Leitch, the idea for a tip line to report forced marriage and other "barbaric practices" to the RCMP was a good one. "The communications of it was atrocious. It went off the rails. But the policy premise of it was one that I stand behind," Ms. Leitch said.

"What we didn't do in that announcement, and what I have done on my campaign, is then go back and continue to reiterate the clear message, again and again and again."

No one can accuse her of failing to repeat the message this time.

Ms. Leitch said she's simply taking a stand on an issue that Canadians care about, but have been afraid to express. "If that makes me populist, talking about what the average guy and gal on the street want to talk about," Ms. Leitch said, "then it does."

Conservative MP Peter Van Loan, whom Ms. Leitch dated in her teens, calls her idea to screen immigrants "thoughtful and coherent," and on side with what many in his York-Simcoe riding north of Toronto feel about immigration.

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"When you peel back the hysteria, saying that you should interview more people, and make sure that they don't want to, you know, blow up the country … that doesn't strike me as extreme at all," Mr. Van Loan said.

Ms. Leitch is described by both supporters and detractors alike as hard-working, intelligent and focused, although many who have worked for her recount a tense and erratic work environment. "She loved to remind us that she was the smartest person," said Kyle Mirecki, Ms. Leitch's former issues manager, who now supports Mr. Bernier. A letter provided to The Globe by one of Ms. Leitch's former employees describes an encounter with Ms. Leitch, then minister of labour and status of women, in 2014, in which she is accused of "bullying and intimidating behaviour" at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

"I am demanding. And I do work hard," Ms. Leitch said. "I don't think I'm going to change."

But many feel Ms. Leitch's career will be forever altered by her relentless focus on a proposal that some view as anti-immigrant.

"I worry about it, long-term," said Hugh Segal, a retired Conservative senator who has known Ms. Leitch for 25 years but does not support her leadership campaign.

"It pains me immensely because we were such good friends for so long, that because of what she has said, I can't vote for her."

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Former Ontario premier Bill Davis, who helped Ms. Leitch campaign for her seat in 2011, feels the same. "I cannot agree with her position, and that's why she knows that I am not helping her," Mr. Davis told The Globe.

Ms. Leitch insists she's been consistently talking about, and living, the values mentioned in her campaign. "I don't think talking to people about who they are when they come to this country is a stretch."

But she still can't explain in detail how her screening plan would work. Would interviews be five minutes? An hour?

"If you're asking me if I'm going to outline exactly what each immigration officer is going to ask each individual that sits across from them? No, I'm not," she said during one of two sit-down interviews with The Globe.

Can't people just answer yes, they agree with certain values?

"Are you asking me if people are going to lie and people are going to slip through the cracks? Yeah of course, let's be realistic," she said. "But I think it's a lot more challenging to lie to someone when you're looking them in the eye."

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