Erin O'Toole and Andrew Scheer stand the best chance of keeping Maxime Bernier from becoming leader of the Conservative Party on May 27. But since both these potential king-slayers seem determined to fight each other as well as the front-runner, neither might succeed.
Mr. Bernier, the 54-year-old MP for Beauce, became the candidate to beat after television celebrity Kevin O'Leary dropped out of the race and threw his support behind the former foreign affairs minister.
Among the remaining contenders, Milton MP Lisa Raitt is hobbled by her inability to speak French; Simcoe-Grey MP Kellie Leitch has received little apparent traction by calling for loyalty tests for potential immigrants; every candidate has ganged up on Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong's proposed carbon tax; former immigration minister Chris Alexander has lit no fires.
That leaves Mr. O'Toole, MP for the Greater Toronto riding of Durham, and Mr. Scheer, MP for Regina-Qu'Appelle, as the most viable "Anyone But Bernier" candidates. Each has strong caucus support (34 MPs and senators for Mr. O'Toole; 32 for Mr. Scheer), and each has a solid résumé.
Mr. O'Toole, 44, served in the air force, then worked as a lawyer, before entering Parliament in 2012. As Veterans Affairs minister, he is credited with stabilizing that troubled file during the final months of Stephen Harper's government.
Mr. Scheer, at 37, is the youngest contender. He served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 2011 to 2015, which involves serving as chief administrator of the House and requires retaining the trust of MPs on both sides of the aisle. Nonetheless, Mr. O'Toole rebuked Mr. Scheer last week for abandoning the party "to hold receptions at the Kingsmere estate."
Mr. Scheer sloughed off the barb and claimed he is running neck-and-neck with Mr. Bernier. "My message to the other candidates is if they believe Maxime's policies are not going to resonate with enough voters to deliver us a majority government, then I'm inviting them to support me," or at the least "suggest to their supporters to put me down as a number two," he said in an interview.
Mr. Bernier's policies are indeed bold: withdrawing the federal government from any role in health care, dismantling the CBC and CRTC and ending tariff protection for dairy and poultry farmers, for starters.
But Mr. Scheer also has some eyebrow-raising proposals, such as withholding federal grants to universities that fail to protect freedom of speech on campus, entrenching property rights in the Constitution and offering tax relief for parents who send their children to private schools.
Mr. O'Toole's platform is more mainstream: increased spending for defence and financial help for young workers. Another example: While Mr. Scheer would balance the budget in two years, Mr. O'Toole would balance the budget "responsibly."
He stands by his assertion that Mr. Scheer is not ready for the job. "Andrew's likeability is solid, but he has no experience," Mr. O'Toole told The Globe. For voters seeking an alternative to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, "we have to have someone who looks, feels and shows that he could be prime minister on Day One."
Mr. O'Toole believes he can win by being everyone's second choice. Mr. Scheer believes likewise. Both believe that Mr. Bernier's strongly libertarian views, coupled with questions of personal judgment (Mr. Bernier was bounced from cabinet for leaving sensitive documents at the apartment of a former girlfriend who had previous ties to organized crime) will limit his second-choice support. But both could simply split the vote, ensuring Mr. Bernier's victory.
The common complaint against all 13 remaining candidates is that they are bland no-names incapable of exciting voters. But "exciting" may not be what people are looking for two-and-a-half years from now. Mr. Trudeau's overwhelming priority going forward is to protect the Canadian economy from U.S. President Donald Trump, who is threatening to scrap the North American free-trade agreement if it is not renegotiated to his satisfaction.
Voters may hold the Liberal government accountable for any economic damage that results. A non-flashy, competent Conservative alternative might just fit the bill.
Right now, the race is Maxime Bernier's to lose. Andrew Scheer or Erin O'Toole could help him lose it, if each doesn't get in the other's way.