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To stop the Tory leadership front-runners, the others will have to get mean

It's hard to measure what's happening inside the Conservative leadership race, but what we do know tells us this: Unless there are major game-changers, either Kevin O'Leary or Maxime Bernier will win.

Two things must be injected into the race if a mathematical march to a Bernier-O'Leary final ballot is to be disrupted. One is some hate and the other is Machiavellian deal-making. Without them, the dozen other candidates, even potential compromise candidates, are doomed.

Okay, that's admittedly too definitive for a race that's so hard to measure. But the point is the rules and dynamics of this 14-candidate race make the math hard for a "consensus" candidate.

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Think back to 2006, when Stéphane Dion was the compromise candidate who won the Liberal leadership. The front-runners, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, fought each other bitterly, and weren't the second choice of many at the leadership convention. When their support stalled, and Mr. Dion gained, delegates jumped on the bandwagon.

But in this contest, voters can't reassess between rounds to see who is the compromise candidate. Party members fill out one ballot that ranks up to 10 candidates. And if the second, third and other choices are roughly divided among six or seven candidates, it's unlikely anyone can catch the front-runners. That's not a prediction, it's just the way the math works. That is, unless the dynamics change.

In one sense, the mechanics of the Conservative race make it almost unmeasurable. There's that ranked ballot. There's also a weighted count, so every riding is worth 100 points – 30 votes in a riding with 50 members are worth as much as 600 votes in a riding with 1,000. There are 14 candidates dividing support. It's hard to track.

"It's really hard," according to Quito Maggi, president of Mainstreet Research. His firm is trying to poll Conservatives, but the party doesn't release membership lists, so Mainstreet contacts Tory donors and asks if they're members. Mr. Maggi is upfront about the limits: Mainstreet can't know if their sample reflects the membership. They survey mini-samples of at least 30 people in all but three of the 338 ridings. They ask about second– and third-choice candidates, but, Mr. Maggi said, the uncertainty about those choices is exponentially higher. It does not have the statistical certainty or precision of a simple poll.

But two key things have come into view.

The first is that Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Bernier are consistently the "first choice" leaders. Both garner over 20 per cent of the points and are significantly ahead of the others. If you don't buy Mainstreet's tracking, advisers from a few campaigns say their research indicates something similar.

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The second is that the second and third choices are divided. They're now spread fairly evenly among a half-dozen candidates, Mr. Maggi said, including potential compromise candidates like Andrew Scheer, Lisa Raitt and Erin O'Toole, but also Kellie Leitch and, notably, Mr. Bernier and Mr. O'Leary. That matters: Unless one compromise candidate wins the lion's share of second and third choices, none can catch the front-runners. In a thousand simulations, Mr. Maggi said, Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Bernier always won.

Of course the race can change. Campaigns tactics might shift the dynamics. A key goal for most is to ensure the front-runners are seen as polarizing, so they're nobody's second choice. Attacks might accomplish that, but that can damage the compromise candidate. Some will try. Stephen Harper's former election-campaign manager, Jenni Byrne - who is close to Mr. O'Toole but insists she is not working on his campaign -  attacked Mr. O'Leary as divisive on Sunday.

And the rivalry between Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Bernier could get nasty.

In the 2006 Liberal race, some of Mr. Dion's supporters, knowing that bitterness between the front-runners benefited them, made cheap-shot anti-Rae buttons, planning to plant them in Ignatieff campaign suites – though they balked before carrying out the dirty trick. But Mr. Dion's victory would not have happened without a deal – fourth-placed Gerard Kennedy threw his support to Mr. Dion, making him the obvious compromise candidate.

Chances are, Conservative leadership candidates will do some deals –  agreeing to ask supporters to pick their ally as second choice. There's no guarantee supporters will follow, but the alliances could make one candidate seem like the obvious compromise candidate. But that has to be clear before the voting starts. If it doesn't happen soon, the front-runners will be running away.

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