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With a critical vote in January, whispers are turning to open conversation among Conservatives about who will replace Stephen Harper if the Prime Minister falls.

Here is a look at the potential candidates.

Jim Prentice

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The first name on everyone's lips for a potential successor to Harper is the current environment minister and de facto Deputy Prime Minister.

Prentice has an attractive biography. Born in Northern Ontario and raised in Alberta, he worked seven summers in a coal mine to pay for university. A lawyer by training, he is a leader in his local Presbyterian church.

He can also claim a history of uniting the party. While a candidate for the PC Party leadership in 2003, Prentice drew support from both the social conservative and Red Tory factions, and ran calling for a merger with the Canadian Alliance.

Prentice may be too far outside the Conservative Party mainstream on social issues, however. He voted in favour of same sex marriages and is pro-choice.

A capable political administrator, Prentice won applause for his handling of the difficult Indian and Northern Affairs file, before being moved to Industry and then Environment.

If the Conservatives want someone who can easily step into Stephen Harper's shoes, Prentice is the obvious choice. As chair of the Operations committee, he is in effect the COO of the government and would be able to smoothly step into the CEO job as PM. He could be marketed as a friendlier version of Harper, without the rough edges that prevented the PM from getting a majority.

However, Prentice may prove divisive among the grassroots for his PC party origin and his social liberalism. He also is clearly tied to Harper, and if the "Harper team"; is rejected, Prentice may be a casualty as well.

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Jean Charest

Ten years ago, Charest was the great right hope, the guy who would bring the PC Party back to prominence. Then he was drafted by public opinion to go to Quebec City to fight the separatists. But he has always kept an eye on Ottawa and the advice of Brian Mulroney that he was a future PM rings in his ears still.

Coming off the heels of a third election victory in Quebec, Charest is a formidable candidate for the Conservative leadership.

He could instantly revive the Tory fortunes in Quebec, without sacrificing much of the party's base in the West. Perhaps more importantly, he would likely be more adept at navigating the shoals of Quebec nationalism than the Liberals, supplanting them as the party of national unity and removing the trump card from the Liberal deck.

Charest's social liberalism and championing of Quebec's interests would likely turn off a wide swath of the Tory base in the West. But the leadership is decided by 308 ridings, and what Charest would lose in Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan, he would make up with complete dominance in Quebec, New Brunswick and Northern and Eastern Ontario.

The real question is the transition from Premier to Prime Minister, running a leadership while in office. The last sitting Premiers to run for a party leadership were Stanfield and Fulton in 1967, and no Premier has ever moved directly to the job of Prime Minister of Canada.

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Charest may be tempted by a draft movement, and would certainly be a formidable opponent and the best bet for the Conservatives to form a majority government.

Stockwell Day

For a guy who used to be a punchline, Stock Day has done a remarkable job of rebuilding his credibility.

Day was a solid Minister of Public Safety, a portfolio known for chewing up past Ministers.

While he is not likely to win, Day could be a standard bearer for the social conservative wing of the party.

However, it is more likely that Day will choose discretion as the better part of valour and allow someone else to lead that campaign.

Peter MacKay

The former leader of the PC Party, MacKay has a solid record in two difficult senior portfolios: Foreign Affairs and Defence.

He is young, attractive and well known among Canadians.

However, his controversial pact with David Orchard at the 2003 PC leadership, and the tensions from the Conservative Party merger that follow may have put too many Conservatives' noses out of joint for MacKay to win this round.

With years in politics ahead of him, MacKay might remain tomorrow's candidate if a leadership is held in 2009.

Tony Clement

The Industry Minister is the only former leadership candidate from 2004, giving him a head start organizing against the others.

As a former provincial minister, Clement has a strong organization in his home province of Ontario, and has had time to lay down roots across the country. Clement's new portfolio of Industry also gives him a potent ability to fundraiser.

Clement is an able administrator, solid organizer and good public speaker.

However, he does carry baggage from the Ontario Conservatives, including the hidden $5.6-billion deficit under Ernie Eves.

James Moore or Lisa Raitt

If the Conservatives decide to completely change the face of their party, they could hardly do better than James Moore or Lisa Raitt.

Moore is young, bilingual, British Columbian and smart. Raitt is young, bilingual, Ontarian and smart.

While both are low profile in the party, either one could prove the dark horse victor in a multi-candidate leadership contest.

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