Maxime Bernier is entering the final stretch of the Conservative leadership race as the most popular candidate among Canadian voters, although the Tories continue to lag behind the governing Liberals on the key issues of the economy and Canada-U.S. relations, a poll has found.
A Nanos Research survey conducted for The Globe and Mail provides a boost to Mr. Bernier, the long-time MP who is seen as the front-runner heading into Saturday night's crowning of the new Conservative leader. He has raised the most money among all candidates and won the endorsement of Kevin O'Leary, a television personality and businessman who was seen as a top contender until he dropped out last month.
Mr. Bernier is polling especially well in his home province of Quebec, but also in the Prairies, where he is known as the "Albertan from Quebec."
However, the poll also suggests the 13 candidates in the race – including Mr. Bernier – have yet to connect with the Canadian public at large, with a significant portion of the electorate seemingly unimpressed with their campaigns or unaware of their policies.
In the poll of the general Canadian public, the more progressive candidacies of Lisa Raitt and Michael Chong generated relatively high levels of support, even though neither of them is expected to win on Saturday. The two MPs who offered the most continuity with the previous Harper government and presented themselves as consensus candidates, Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole, trailed not only Mr. Bernier, but also Ms. Raitt and Mr. Chong.
Meanwhile, Kellie Leitch, who ran on a plan to screen all visitors to Canada, elicited the strongest negatives in the country and garnered minimal support among Canadians.
Pollster Nik Nanos said that whoever wins on Saturday will have only a short window of time to create a clear impression of their personalities and policies among the public at large.
"The first speech will not be for Conservative Party members, it will be for Canadians who are probably going to pay five minutes' attention to whoever the winner is, and the highlights of their speech, to get a sense of whether this is a Prime Minister-in-waiting or not," he said in an interview.
The poll also found that Canadians are increasingly supportive of the Liberal Party's handling of the economy, which is seen as the most-pressing issue facing the country by the top Conservative leadership candidates.
Nearly four in ten Canadians (38 per cent) said that the Liberals have the best program to manage the Canadian economy, a number that stood at only 25 per cent in 2015. By contrast, the overall support for the Conservatives on this issue stands at 30 per cent, which is the same figure as two years ago.
In terms of being able to work with the Trump administration in Washington, the Liberals are once again in the lead. Forty per cent of respondents said the Liberals were the most likely to be able to deal with the President, compared with 35 per cent of respondents who picked the Conservatives.
"The Conservative campaign has focused more on terrorism, identity politics and Conservative social values than on fiscal issues," Mr. Nanos said. "This should be a wake-up call for … whoever does become the leader. That person should veer off an attack on the Liberals and focus on the Conservatives as better fiscal and economic stewards."
The poll results don't apply only to Conservative supporters or members, but rather to the entire population, providing an overall snapshot of each candidate's current standing among the electorate.
The poll found the likelihood that Canadians would vote for the Conservatives in the next election fluctuated based on the identity of the next leader. On that score, Mr. O'Toole (16.1 per cent) and Mr. Scheer (16.6 per cent) trailed behind Mr. Chong (22.7 per cent), Ms. Raitt (25.9 per cent) and Mr. Bernier (29.4 per cent). Ms. Leitch stood far back at 12.8 per cent.
The findings could improve the party standing of Ms. Raitt and Mr. Chong, who few party insiders expect to make the top three on Saturday. Mr. Chong is the only candidate in the race who proposed a serious climate-change plan, while Ms. Raitt has promised to improve the lot of women and working-class Canadians as party leader.
Mr. Nanos said both candidates will be able to help the next leader connect with the broader set of voters that the party needs in order to stay competitive with the Liberals.
"Whoever the leader is has to look at both of those candidates as significant assets for the Conservative Party of Canada," Mr. Nanos said.
The other perceived front-runners in the race, Mr. Scheer and Mr. O'Toole, appear to be struggling in their efforts to resonate with the broader public. Almost half of the respondents said neither candidate would make them more or somewhat more likely to vote Conservative.
Mr. Nanos said both men have yet to define themselves to a greater audience beyond Conservatives, but there is an opportunity to do so in the future.
"If you're Scheer or O'Toole, you have to be looking at the numbers and perhaps taking a bit of comfort in the fact that the proportion of Canadians that are unsure is actually highest for those two candidates," Mr. Nanos said.
When it comes to increasing Conservative fortunes in the next election, Ms. Leitch fares the worst among the best-known candidates.
Almost two-thirds of Canadians, or 64 per cent, would be less likely (58 per cent) or somewhat less likely (six per cent) to vote Conservative if Ms. Leitch were the leader.
Only 13 per cent of Canadians would be likely, or somewhat likely, to vote for the Conservatives under her leadership. More than a quarter of respondents, at 27 per cent, also said Ms. Leitch would make the worst prime minister, followed by 8 per cent for Mr. Bernier.
Mr. Nanos said Ms. Leitch polls low among Canadians because her strategy has been to focus on diehard Conservative party members.
"The problem with that strategy is that, even if she was to win, she would start off with such a disadvantage because of what she has had to say and do to win," Mr. Nanos said.
The poll was conducted on May 24 and 25, based on a random sample of 1,000 respondents. It is considered accurate plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.